Chinese, US scientists discover earliest gliding mammals

Fossilised remains of two species found in what is now Liaoning and Hebei provinces and they lived more than 100 million years before the emergence of bats

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 4:01pm

Not all prehistoric mammals needed to scurry to avoid dinosaurs with whom they shared the planet in the Jurassic age. Some just glided, according to research published on Thursday.

Fossils of two extinct mammals that lived in what is now China some 160 million years ago revealed the outlines of wing-like membranes joining the rodent-like animals’ front and hind limbs, a team of US and Chinese scientists wrote in the journal Nature.

“With long limbs, long hand and foot fingers, and wing-like membranes for tree-to-tree gliding, Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos are the oldest known gliders in the long history of early mammals,” said a statement from the University of Chicago, whose researchers took part in the study.

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It was not until more than 100 million years later that bats, which use powered flight like birds, and more gliding mammals appeared, following the dinosaurs’ demise.

The two species’ fossilised remains were found in what are now Liaoning and Hebei provinces.

One of the animals measured about 23 cm from head to tail and the other 8cm without its tail, which was missing.

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

This showed that ancestral mammals adapted to a challenging environment and tough competition from dinosaurs.

“These new fossil gliders are the first winged mammals and they demonstrate that early mammals did indeed have a wide range of ecological diversity,” said the team.

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This “means dinosaurs likely did not dominate the Mesozoic landscape as much as previously thought”.

The Mesozoic era from about 250 million to 66 million years ago was divided into the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.