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13 August 2017, 02:29 | Rodolfo Wallace
Researchers discover first winged mammals from the Jurassic period
When you think about the Jurassic Period, you probably think of massive, lumbering dinosaurs. "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 fossils are described in two papers published this week in Nature by an global team of scientists from the University of Chicago and Beijing Museum of Natural History.
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.
This distinct diet and lifestyle evolved again some 100 million years later among modern mammals, in examples of convergent evolution and ecology. "In a way, they got the first wings among all mammals", said co-researcher Zhe-Xi Luo, a professor at the University of Chicago. Both fossils show the exquisitely fossilized, wing-like skin membranes between their front and back limbs.
They also show many skeletal features in their shoulder joints and forelimbs that gave the ancient animals the agility to be capable gliders.
The two species, Maiopatagium furculiferum from Liaoning Province and Vilevolodon diplomylos unearthed about 65 km away in Hebei Province, come from an extinct early mammalian side branch. But the ability to glide is still an important adaptation.
Many modern-day mammals, including flying squirrels and bats, exhibit remarkable ability to glide in the air.
Today, gliding mammals include the flying squirrels in North America and Asia; the scaly-tailed rodent gliders of Africa; the marsupial sugar gliders of Australia; and the colugos, or "flying lemars" of Southeast Asia. Maiopatagium's teeth resemble those of fruit bats, suggesting it ate soft plant parts.
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The ability to glide is thought to evolve so that these tree-dwelling animals can efficiently explore food sources scattered among the trees.
Gliding from tree to tree may allow more efficient and safe foraging and provide rapid escape from predators.
Two fossils discovered in China show that the volant, or flying, way of life evolved among mammalian ancestors 100 million years earlier than the first modern mammal fliers.
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. After all, haramiyidans were wiped out by the mass extinction (and if the dinosaurs didn't make it, these small mammals didn't stand a chance.) As Luo points out, you can see the same pattern repeating itself over and over throughout the history of evolution: "Ground to tree, then tree to air".
One study author said these ancient gliders show "the groundwork for mammals' successful diversification today appears to have been laid long ago". "They did their own evolutionary experiment to glide".
"It's awesome that the aerial adaptions occurred so early in the history of mammals", said David Grossnickle, a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the US.
"We need to completely rethink the community structure and ecological relationships of the Mesozoic, especially with regards to how mammals fit into it", Polly says.
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