Researchers Discover Rare Fossils Of Winged Mammals From Dinosaur Age

These images show a Jurassic gliding Vilevolodon diplomylos fossil slab and counter-slab with arrows pointing to the skin membrane it used to glide from tree to tree

These images show a Jurassic gliding Vilevolodon diplomylos fossil slab and counter-slab with arrows pointing to the skin membrane it used to glide from tree to tree

But they likely shared their airspace with smaller, furrier creatures. Researchers have recently discovered two such flying creatures in eastern China and they lived alongside dinosaurs almost 160 million years ago, making them the oldest-known winged mammals on record. Vilevolodon was a bit smaller.

Mammals first appeared roughly 210 million years ago.

Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon were found in the same rock formation in northeast China, where the fine sediment of a shallow Jurassic freshwater lake preserved them in excellent condition.

The fossil record for the forerunners of mammals in the Jurassic period has been poor, Luo said, "so we have this biased impression that early mammals are not terribly diverse, not terribly interesting because they are dominated by dinosaurs".

These incredibly well-preserved fossils retained many fine details, including fur-covered membranes that formed a wing-like connection between the front and back legs.

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In 2007, a separate set of researchers also found a fossil in northeastern China with membranes for gliding.

As Carl Zimmer at The New York Times reports, in the past, paleontologists believed that proto-mammals during the Mesozoic Era which lasted 252 to 66 million years ago were not very diverse. This distinct diet and lifestyle evolved again some 100 million years later among modern mammals, in examples of convergent evolution and ecology. It's not quite flight, at least not the way that we think of it: Unlike birds, or even bats-another airborne mammal-these early mammals did not have powered flight.

This means that the ability of mammals to glide evolved much earlier than previously thought.

Gliding mammals, like flying squirrels, sugar gliders and colugos are pretty impressive creatures, with some capable of flying up to 300 feet in a single jump between trees.

These two and another apparent glider from about the same time that was described in 2006 were the vanguard of the mammalian air force. Today, the hallmark of most mammal gliders is their herbivorous diet that typically consists of seeds, fruits and other soft parts of flowering plants.

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

Gliding from tree to tree may allow more efficient and safe foraging and provide rapid escape from predators. It's the same reason that some modern-day tree-dwelling mammals evolved the ability to glide, Luo says.

An worldwide team of scientists from the University of Chicago and Beijing Museum of Natural History have discovered fossils of two extinct mammals that lived in China some 160 million years ago.

They primitive flying mammals fed on plants while their long limbs and fingers suggest that they gripped tree branches with their feet like a bat.

Maiopatagium was 23 centimetres from nose to tail, and probably weighed around 120 to 170 grams, where as Vilevolodon left a fossil just 8 centimetres long, and might have weighed a tiny 35 to 55 grams. "They did their own evolutionary experiment to glide".

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"Despite living in dinosaur-dominated ecosystems, early mammals diversified into many ecological niches", said University of Chicago palaeontologist Zhe-Xi Luo, who led the research published in the journal Nature.

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