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Jurassic mammals were first to glide with ‘wings’

New research shows the flying way of life evolved among mammalian ancestors 100 million years earlier than the first modern mammal fliers (Credit: April I. Neander/U. Chicago)

The forerunners of mammals in the Jurassic Period evolved to glide and live in trees using long limbs, long hand and foot fingers, and wing-like membranes, two 160 million-year-old fossils discovered in China suggest.

The discovery indicates that the volant, or flying, way of life evolved among mammalian ancestors 100 million years earlier than the first modern mammal fliers.

Photograph of the fossil of gliding mammaliaform Maiopatagium furculiferum (type specimen from Beijing Museum of Natural History BMNH 2940). (Credit: Zhe-Xi Luo/U. Chicago)

“These Jurassic mammals are truly ‘the first in glide,'” says Zhe-Xi Luo, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and coauthor of two papers in Nature describing the findings (paper 1, paper 2). “In a way, they got the first wings among all mammals.

“With every new mammal fossil from the Age of Dinosaurs, we continue to be surprised by how diverse mammalian forerunners were in both feeding and locomotor adaptations. The groundwork for mammals’ successful diversification today appears to have been laid long ago,” he says.

The ability to glide in the air is one of the many remarkable adaptations in mammals. Most mammals live on land, but volant mammals, including flying squirrels and bats that flap bird-like wings, made an important transition between land and aerial habitats.

The ability to glide between trees allowed the ancient animals to find food that was inaccessible to other land animals. That evolutionary advantage can still be seen among today’s mammals such as flying squirrels in North America and Asia, scaly-tailed gliders of Africa, marsupial sugar gliders of Australia, and colugos of Southeast Asia.

The Jurassic species, Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos, are stem mammaliaforms, long-extinct relatives of living mammals. They are haramiyidans, an entirely extinct branch on the mammalian evolutionary tree, but are considered to be among forerunners to modern mammals.

Both samples 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.

Evolutionarily, the two fossils—discovered in the Tiaojishan Formation northeast of Beijing, China—represent the earliest examples of gliding behavior among extinct mammal ancestors.

The newly discovered creatures also share similar ecology with modern gliders, but with some significant differences. Today, the hallmark of most mammal gliders is their herbivorous diet that typically consists of seeds, fruits, and other soft parts of flowering plants.

Early mammals probably slunk around at night

But Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon lived in a Jurassic world in which 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. Their way of life also was associated with feeding on these entirely different plants. This distinct diet and lifestyle evolved again some 100 million years later among modern mammals, in examples of convergent evolution and ecology.

“It’s amazing that the aerial adaptions occurred so early in the history of mammals,” says study coauthor David Grossnickle, a graduate student at the university. “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. The new glider fossils from the dinosaur-dominated Jurassic Period, along with numerous other fossils, however, provide strong evidence that ancestral mammals adapted to their wide-ranging environments despite competition from dinosaurs.

“Mammals are more diverse in lifestyles than other modern land vertebrates, but we wanted to find out whether early forerunners to mammals had diversified in the same way,” Luo says.

Jurassic mammals were picky eaters

“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.”

Source: University of Chicago