At first glance, one of the most famous figures of Peru’s Nasca Lines looks like a fairly generic hummingbird. But the details of the drawing—and those of several other ancient drawings, paintings, and sculptures of animals and plants around the world—reveal a lot of information about the actual species. The bird has three toes, all pointed in the same direction, a long, thin beak, and the feathers at the center of its tail are long and straight.
Those are trademarks of birds called hermits, a genus in the hummingbird family. Other hummingbird species in Peru have forked or fan-shaped tails (which is the kind of detail the Nasca artists likely would have gotten right).
“Until now, the birds in these drawings have been identified based on general impressions or a few morphological traits present in each figure,” said zooarchaeologist Masaki Eda of the Hokkaido University Museum and his colleagues in a statement. That team examined the hermit and 15 other bird geoglyphs in detail, noting the shapes and relative sizes of their beaks, heads, necks, bodies, wings, and feet. Like biologists trying to identify a new specimen in the field, the researchers compared those details to the birds that live in Peru today.