The Early Hummingbird Gets the Evolutionary Nectar

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Posted on May 28, 2014 in Birds, Darwin and Evolution, Dinosaurs, Dumb Ideas, Fossils

A three-inch fossil bird is said to be the earliest nectar-feeder, meaning pollination by birds is older and more complex than thought.

National Geographic has a stunningly detailed photo of the fossil bird called Pumiliornis tessellatus.  It’s not a hummingbird exactly, even though it has perching feet and a long, slender beak.  At 47 million years old in the evolutionary timeline, it is being called the earliest known nectar feeder—implying that it played a role as a pollinator in its environment.   Live Science points out another similarity to modern hummingbirds:

The bird had a long, slender beak with elongated nasal openings, an adaptation that increases the flexibility of the beak tip — this feature is also seen in hummingbirds, which feed off the nectar located deep in flowers.

There’s something odd about the reports, though.  It’s not a simple evolutionary story.  Finding this bird in Germany’s famous fossil-bearing Messel Pit makes it, according to one paleontologist, “older that [sic] we had evidence for previously, and also more complicated than we suspected.”  The fossil is also exceptionally well preserved.  Inside the stomach of the little bird are bits of insect wings and clumps of pollen not recognizable from other angiosperms (flowering plants) in that area.

To deal with the growing complexity of the story, evolutionists are proposing that ornithophilly (nectar-feeding) evolved here, then disappeared, then evolved again later.

Other researchers say the new find helps support the idea that bird pollination may have evolved and then disappeared over time. Now-extinct bees related to modern honeybees also lived at Messel, and “it could’ve been that this little ecosystem bit the dust, and what we have today is something that’s more recent,” says Conrad Labandeira, curator of fossil arthropods at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Prior to P. tessellatus, the oldest suggested nectar feeder was 30 million years old.  That’s a gap of 17 million evolutionary years.

Cretaceous woodpecker?

In other bird paleontology news, a pigeon-sized fossil bird with “scansorial adaptations” (ability to climb tree trunks) has been found in China, PhysOrg reported.  It’s a member of the extinct enantiornithines – birds with teeth and claws, but similar in other respects to modern birds.

The abundance of enantiornithine fossils, and in particular the well-preserved nearly complete skeletons known from the Lower Cretaceous of China, has made it possible for researchers to address questions such as how well enantiornithines could fly, whether they were primarily terrestrial or arboreal, and why they were so successful during the Cretaceous.…

Features of this new species suggested that it was scansorial, an ecology previously unknown for enantiornithine birds, further increasing the known diversity of body plans in Early Cretaceous enantiornithines.

The bird, named Fortunguavis xiaotaizicus, had a robust pectoral girdle and toes adapted for climbing.  The article does not state whether the discoverers believe it could fly.

Fossil bias?

Another PhysOrg article claims that diversity was low among Cretaceous birds.  This could be due, though, to preservation bias.  Depending on where they lived, or their size, “Some types of birds might become fossilized more often than others, artificially reducing the diversity.”  The researchers from the University of Chicago don’t think so, preferring instead to think that the “paucity of ecological niches could be explained simply by the fact that birds were new to the scene, and thus hadn’t had time to diversify.”  That seems doubtful, though, given the rapidity of many other cases of rapid diversification.

Interestingly, the article mentions that many of the fossils still retained food in their bellies: “they looked at the contents of the birds’ stomachs—the last meals they ate before their demise—which in some cases had survived the process of fossilization.”  The article is decorated with artist reconstructions of three birds that do look strikingly diverse.  Also notable is an admission that “when and how birds originated” is a topic under some debate.”

X-Raying Archaeopteryx

The BBC News reported that scientists are finding new things about the iconic fossil bird Archaeopteryx by scanning the known fossils with X-rays.  New anatomical details are coming to light with these scans that employ a powerful, giant X-ray machine at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, at the foot of the French Alps.  “One by one, the 12 fossils have been arriving at the ESRF. And very soon there may be a major breakthrough to announce.”   Most remarkable so far are the feathers: “they are far more visible by this new scan than by looking at the original specimen.”  Some may cause trouble for consensus: “If this X-ray spectacle can be repeated with other famous fossils, there may be other discoveries that ruffle the feathers of established wisdom.

Dinobird Dogma

A third PhysOrg article repeats the current belief that birds are living dinosaurs: “Dinosaurs aren’t extinct,” said Dr. Robert Benson, vertebrate paleontologist at Oxford University, England, “there are about 10,000 species alive today in the form of birds.”

Oxford scientists completed a “landmark study” that reveals “The incredible shrinking bird” – from T. rex to Tweety over 150 million years of evolution.  According to their interpretation, birds survived the dinosaur extinction event by growing smaller.  Dinosaurs, having filled their ecological niches, became “conservative” or evolutionarily lazy.  The new kids on the block survived because they “never stopped evolving.”

According to their hypothesis, the mechanism behind dinosaurs surviving to the present as 10,000 bird species was miniaturization followed by adaptive radiation: leaving no useful ecological niche unfilled. If there was a place to move into with something to eat, birds moved there and adapted. Then they kept moving, kept adapting and kept surviving. Here, not just evolvability, but maintenance of evolvability, is the key.

The phrase “according to this hypothesis” qualifies their conclusions somewhat.  It gives them an escape hatch if they were to be questioned about giraffes, whales, redwoods, and other organisms that didn’t follow the miniaturization route, or the many “living fossils” that didn’t follow the evolvability route, yet survive pretty well.

If the fossils still show food in the stomach, how can they claim they are 47 million to 150 million years old?  If the birds had teeth and wings contemporaneous with dinosaurs, how can they say they evolved from dinosaurs?  If a fossil bird looks like a hummingbird, why don’t they call it a hummingbird?  If miniaturization is the key to survival, why doesn’t it work all the time?  If we can think of a few questions like these in a matter of seconds, why can’t reporters?

Evolutionary theory is the most useless idea ever foisted upon science.  With the magic wand of natural selection, it explains everything, and therefore explains nothing.  Any observation fits the tale, “it evolved.”  You never find the storytellers explaining how it evolved—what specific sequence of mutations formed a beak or a wing or an eye—you just find them spouting glittering generalities that assume evolution did it.

One of the most frequent complaints by atheists about creationists is the answer “God did it.”  (By this, they build a straw man, because no serious creationist dismisses any phenomenon with those words; the belief that God is creator of all, they would say, stimulates scientific investigation by inspiring the researcher to figure out how it was made.)  Well, then, why isn’t anyone complaining about the answer “evolution did it”?  Time to revisit Brett Miller’s cartoon, “It evolved” that he drew specifically for Creation-Evolution Headlines, inspired by one of our themes (e.g., 5/25/05).  See also his cartoon about “Miss Information” under Repetition in the Baloney Detector.




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