Jin Meng, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the study said.
"These Jurassic mammals are truly "the first in glide".
"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", he further added. 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.
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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. They were unrelated to today's four groups of gliding mammals: flying squirrels in North America and Asia; Africa's scaly-tailed gliders; Australia's marsupial sugar gliders; and Southeast Asia's colugos. As Luo put it, "if there is an opportunity. some extinct lineages of mammals has already tried a long time 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 wings are the preserved remains of a skin membrane that stretches, parachute-like, between fore and hind limbs, allowing the creatures to glide. They also show many skeletal features in their shoulder joints and forelimbs that gave the ancient animals the agility to be capable gliders. Researchers have recently discovered two such flying creatures in eastern China and they lived alongside dinosaurs almost 160 million years ago, making them the oldest-known winged mammals on record. The other species, Vilevolodon diplomyos, was closer in size to a mouse and had ridged molars, similar to modern seed-eating species, though, according to a press release, both species lived at a time before the dawn of flowering plants and likely specialized in eating parts of the ferns, conifers and gingkoes that dominated the Jurassic. Their way of life also was associated with feeding on these entirely different plants. But this more recent discovery pushes the timeframe for the evolution of gliding among mammals back by 35 million years.
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"It's incredible 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. The fossils also showed that the bones in forelimbs were proportioned similarly to the bones in other known gliders, and the shoulders were seemingly created to maximize mobility-a must-have for being able to glide through the sky on extended arms. It has a membrane between its wrist and ankle, "so we imagine that that they just glide around in between the trees just like the flying squirrels", Luo says.
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