Science

Jurassic mammals were first to glide with 'wings'

Jurassic mammals were first to glide with 'wings'”

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.

The new discoveries suggest that the volant, or flying, way of life evolved among mammalian ancestors 100 million years earlier than the first modern mammal fliers. Prof Zhe-Xi Luo, from the University of Chicago, US, said: "These Jurassic mammals are truly the first to glide. 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. "We consistently find with every new fossil that the earliest mammals were just as diverse in both feeding and locomotor adaptations as modern mammals", Luo says in a press release. "The groundwork for mammals' successful diversification today appears to have been laid long ago". But the ability to glide is still an important adaptation.

The study that was published in the journal Nature, explains the abilities of these creatures to evovle through tough living conditions in that period and gave them a better access to food than their land-bound counterparts.

Scientists compare prehistoric bats with existing four groups of flying animals: squirrels-flying squirrels of North America and Asia, silkworm from Africa, Australia's marsupial sugar possums and sherstokryly from South-East Asia. They belong to the haramiyidans, an entirely extinct branch on the mammalian evolutionary tree, but which may have been to a forerunner to modern mammals.

The wings are the preserved remains of a skin membrane that stretches, parachute-like, between fore and hind limbs, allowing the creatures to glide. Today, the hallmark of most mammal gliders is their herbivorous diet that typically consists of seeds, fruits and other soft parts of flowering plants. The world was a temperate forest: a leafy wilderness full of giant ferns and ginkgos, with conifers (the family of cone-bearing trees) and palm tree-like cycads.

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.

"It's awesome that the aerial adaptions occurred so early in the history of mammals", said David Grossnickle of the University of Chicago, author of a study in the journal Nature on the findings, in a statement.

"Not only did these fossils show exquisite fossilisation of gliding membranes, their limb, hand and foot proportion also suggests a new gliding locomotion and behaviour", said Grossnickle. 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. The new glider fossils from the dinosaur-dominated Jurassic Period, along with numerous other fossils described by Luo and colleagues in the last 10 years, however, provide strong evidence that ancestral mammals adapted to their wide-ranging environments despite competition from dinosaurs.



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