Chinese in dense forests inhabited by dinosaurs, 160 million years ago was inhabited by two furry creatures, resembling flying squirrels.
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 U.S. and Chinese scientists wrote in the journal Nature. 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.
They were the earliest known mammalian gliders, having evolved the ability 100 million years before the first modern mammals adopted the same technique.
The work is published by an global team of scientists in this week's Nature. Recently, though, a series of new discoveries - including these two gliding mammals - serve as evidence that there was actually far more variation in mammalian lifestyles at this time than previously thought. "But fossils keep showing us the great diversity of small mammals doing numerous ecological jobs they do today".
Maiopatagium was about 23 cm long, similar in size to flying squirrels.
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.
The smaller of the two, Vilevolodon diplomylos, is three inches long, and its fossil is also preserved with a skin membrane "as if it's a museum-prepared specimen", he adds. 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.
While most of their modern counterparts feed on the seeds and fruits of flowering plants, the Jurassic gliders lived before flowers had evolved.
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However, Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon lived in a Jurassic world where the plant life was dominated by ferns and gymnosperm plants like cycads, gingkoes and conifers - long before flowering plants came to dominate in the Cretaceous Period, and their way of life was also associated with feeding on these entirely different plants. Only 100 million years after the dinosaurs were extinct, there was bats and other species of gliding animals.
'Not only did these fossils show exquisite fossilization of gliding membranes, their limb, hand and foot proportion also suggests a new gliding locomotion and behavior'.
Early mammals were once thought to have differences in anatomy from each other, with limited opportunities to inhabit different environments.
This adds to evidence that mammals were more diverse during the age of dinosaurs than previously realised.
Lead scientist Professor Zhe-Xi Luo, also from the University of Chicago, said: 'These new fossil gliders are the first winged mammals, and they demonstrate that early mammals did indeed have a wide range of ecological diversity.
The study, "New Gliding Mammaliaforms from the Jurassic", was supported by the Beijing Science and Technology Commission and the University of Chicago. There appears to have been an evolutionary explosion of mammalian life styles that occurred deep in the Jurassic. Additional authors include Qing-Jin Meng, Qiang Ji, Yu-Guang Zhang, Di Liu and April Neander.