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Hummingbirds Are More Badass Than You Realize

But how did they get that way?

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It's got skills... A very specific set of skills:

Hummingbirds flap their wings real fast. And they do it differently than other birds.

Discovery / Via youtube.com

They are most famous for their mode of flight, which allows them to flap their wings over 60 times per second in an innovative figure-eight motion. This motion requires a uniquely-shaped humerus bone, and it requires a higher metabolic rate than nearly any other creature on Earth.

And their beaks are a perfect match for the specific flowers they feed on.

Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

The birds' beaks are an ideal shape for extracting nectar from the species of flower they feed on. This adaptation is clearly good for the bird (who gets to eat delicious sugary nectar), and it also helps the plant (which uses the bird as a vessel to transport its pollen to other plants for fertilization and reproduction).

Since the birds are uniquely suited to specific plants, many different species of hummingbirds can co-exist in the same areas if there are enough flowering plants.

But how'd these skills evolve in the first place?

We know that their ancestors are from Eurasia and that modern hummingbirds first started popping up in South America.

Mikelane45 / Getty Images

We've got a basic outline of how that happened thanks to science:

  • Hummingbirds evolved from swifts and treeswifts — fast-moving, quick-turning insect-eating birds.
  • The last common ancestor of hummingbirds and swifts likely existed around 42 million years ago somewhere in Europe or Asia.
  • A massive boom of new hummingbird species showing up occurred around 22 million years ago in South America.
  • Hummingbirds re-invaded North America around 12 million years ago. Scientists say re-invaded because they assume that hummingbird ancestors originally traveled through North America to get to South America.
  • We know that in the last 5 million years, hummingbirds have rapidly evolved into a myriad of different species.

But that doesn't really explain where those skills came from. There are a lot of unanswered questions:

When did these hummingbird ancestors actually begin to develop those badass skills?

Lance Grande, Field Museum of Natural History / Via sciencedaily.com

Few fossils of ancestral hummingbirds exist. This fossil (above) is the closest thing scientists have found to a common ancestor of both swifts and hummingbirds. This specimen didn't have the long relative wingspan for fast flight that swifts have, but it also lacked the short relative wingspan hummingbirds need for their style of flying. This suggests those traits evolved later on for both groups.

But how and when these changes happened remain mysterious.

How did hummingbirds make it all the way to South America if their most distant ancestors were in Europe?

Kdow / Getty Images

Many scientists think that they probably came over from Asia on a land bridge. But, again, the problem lies in the fossil record. There are very few fossils that preserve their evolution and migration.

How did hummingbirds become so fond of nectar if their ancestors ate only insects?

Maksym Kravtsov / Getty Images

Sure, hummingbirds eat insects from time to time, but their primary diet is sugar-based. This is curious, because we know that birds lack one of the two sensory receptors (known as TIR2 and TIR3) animals typically use to recognize sweet tastes.

A fascinating study published in the journal Science seems to suggest that mutations in the hummingbird's TR3 receptor (which we humans use to taste savory things) have allowed them to sense sweetness.

Could this shift in perception and diet have allowed them to develop the metabolic capacity for such ridiculous flapping? It's an idea. But at the moment it's really only an idea.

But we do know that hummingbirds aren't quitting anytime soon.

Universal / Via giphy.com

Dr. Jimmy McGuire, a UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology, led a research team that used genetic information from living species to produce the most comprehensive picture of hummingbird evolution and timing to date. "It doesn't look like hummingbird radiation is close to stopping," he told BuzzFeed. In fact, he says, "Hummingbirds might only be halfway there."

The rate at which new hummingbird species are developing — which is among the fastest in the animal kingdom — is one of the things that impresses McGuire the most. Hummingbirds are able to invade an area and rapidly diversify to fit the needs of that environment. In the last 5 million years, for example, a single group of hummingbird species has expanded to include at least 42 new species.

That's pretty badass!

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