Researchers Discover Rare Fossils Of Winged Mammals From Dinosaur Age

Henrietta Strickland
August 13, 2017

Indentified as Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos, the species are believed to be the oldest known gliding mammals, the study authors explained in a statement.

When you think of the Jurassic sky, you might imagine screeching, winged pterosaurs. "But fossils keep showing us the great diversity of small mammals doing numerous ecological jobs they do today", Oxford University vertebrate paleontologist Dr. Roger Benson, who was not involved in the study, said in an interview with BBC News.

The work is published by an global team of scientists in this week's Nature. That means that they have no relationship to modern gliders, which emerged about 50 million years ago.

"In a way, they got the first wings among all mammals", said study co-author Zhe-Xi Luo, a professor of anatomy and biology from the University of Chicago. "Some hundred million years later, the modern mammals re-evolved this gliding adaptation several times over".

The wings are the preserved remains of a skin membrane that stretches, parachute-like, between fore and hind limbs, allowing the creatures to glide.

They also show many skeletal features in their shoulder joints and forelimbs that gave the ancient animals the agility to be capable gliders.

Gliding is different from powered flight which involves flapping wings, as employed by birds and bats. He points to the diverse mammals that now can glide, like North American flying squirrels, African scaly-tailed gliders, southeast Asian colugos, and Australian marsupial sugar gliders.

That evolutionary advantage can still be seen among today's gliding mammals, the researchers said.

Back when Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon walked-or glided above-the earth, they were probably tree-dwelling herbivores, like their haramiyidan relatives. Maiopatagium's teeth resemble those of fruit bats, suggesting it ate soft plant parts.

The two new fossil species exhibit highly specialised characteristics, including adaptations that allowed them to climb trees, roost on branches and glide. After all, which is easier: climbing down from your tree, walking through the underbrush (which could be home to any number of predators) and climbing up another tree; or just gliding from one tree to another?

New research shows the flying way of life evolved among mammalian ancestors 100 million years earlier than the first modern mammal fliers.

Their gliding ability would have given them access to food that ground-bound competitors could not reach, said the team.

"[Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon] come from one of the most ancient lineages of fossil groups, long before the rise of modern mammals", Luo says.

Both creatures, recovered from Tiaojishan Formation rocks north east of Beijing, were haramiyidans, a wholly extinct branch of the mammalian evolutionary tree.

In addition to the wing membrane, Maiopatagium had fused wishbones similar to those found in modern birds, and the creatures' skeletons resembled the platypus, the United Kingdom media outlet reported. "They did their own evolutionary experiment to glide".

'It's awesome that the aerial adaptions occurred so early in the history of mammals, ' said study co-author David Grossnickle, also from the University of Chicago.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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