When did birds start eating fruit?

New scans of ancient fossils reveal one of the first ever fruit-eating birds

Image credit: Hu et al. (CC BY 4.0).

Birds and plants have a close relationship that has developed over millions of years. Birds became diverse and abundant around 135 million years ago. Shortly after, plants started developing new and different kinds of fruits. Today, fruit-eating birds help plants to reproduce by spreading seeds in their droppings. This suggests that birds and plants have coevolved, changing together over time. But it is not clear exactly how their relationship started.

One species that might hold the answers is an early bird species known as Jeholornis. It lived in China in the Early Cretaceous, around 120 million years ago. Palaeontologists have discovered preserved seeds inside its fossilised remains. The question is, how did they get there? Some birds eat seeds directly, cracking them open or grinding them up in the stomach to extract the nutrients inside. Other birds swallow seeds when they are eating fruit. If Jeholornis belonged to this second group, it could represent one of the early steps in plant-bird coevolution.

Hu et al. scanned and reconstructed a preserved Jeholornis skull and compared it to the skulls, especially the mandibles, of modern birds, including species that grind seeds, species that crack seeds and species that eat fruits, leaving the seeds whole. The analyses ruled out seed cracking. But it could not distinguish between seed grinding and fruit eating. Hu et al. therefore compared the seed remains found inside Jeholornis fossils to seeds eaten by modern birds. The fossilised seeds were intact and showed no evidence of grinding. This suggests that Jeholornis ate whole fruits for at least part of the year.

At around the time Jeholornis was alive, the world was entering a phase called the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution, which was characterized by an explosion of new species and an expansion of both flowering plants and birds. This finding opens new avenues for scientists to explore how plant and birds might have evolved together. Similar analyses could unlock new information about how other species interacted with their environments.