Amazing fossil discoveries in China show evidence that the early mammals during the Jurassic era had the ability to glide or fly. With long limbs, hands, and fingers, these creatures are believed to be the first mammals to have wings.

Jurassic Gliders

Not one but two 160-million-year-old fossil finds from Beijing, China, suggest that the early mammals during the Jurassic era were able to thrive in trees as well as on land due to their capability to fly or glide. Evidence suggests that these first gliders were even able to survive in different environments even as they lived alongside the dinosaurs of the era.

"These new fossil gliders are the first winged mammals, and they demonstrate that early mammals did indeed have a wide range of ecological diversity, which means dinosaurs likely did not dominate the Mesozoic landscape as much as previously thought," said Zhe-Xi Luo from the University of Chicago, coauthor of both studies.

Thoroughly described in two papers published in the journal Nature, the newly described Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos are perhaps the first gliders in mammalian history. In fact, their existence suggests that flying or gliding had evolved in mammals a hundred years earlier than modern mammalian flyers and gliders such as bats.

Long-Extinct Ancestors

Both the Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos come from an already-extinct branch of mammalians called haramiyidans. Even so, they are still considered as closely related to modern mammals.

Both fossils were excellently preserved, with long arms and fingers and evidence of wing-like skin membranes between the back and front limbs that were likely used as wings. Further, the specimens also show shoulder joints and forelimbs that suggest the capability to fly and glide.

Lifestyle And Diet

The diet of modern gliders consists of seeds, the soft parts flowering plants, and fruits. However, during the time of the Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos, the plant life consists mostly of ferns and gymnosperms. This diet also eventually evolved along with flowering plants.

Because of their ability to fly and glide, these first volant mammals were able to reach food that other land mammals could not.

Modern Relatives

The traits of these Jurassic mammals parallel those of modern mammals such as flying squirrels and bats, which also use skin membranes to go from one point to another or between land and aerial habitats.

The two fossil discoveries were studied by an international team of scientists from the University of Chicago and the Beijing Museum of Natural History.

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