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Mammals might have flown before birds, scientists claim

Dec. 13, 2006
Courtesy Nature
and World Science staff

Artist's con­cept of the fly­ing mam­mal (cour­te­sy Chuang Zhao and Lida Xing)


The first fly­ing mam­mals may have tak­en to the skies much ear­li­er than has been thought, a pa­per in this week’s is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture sug­gests. 

Jin Meng of the Amer­i­can Mu­se­um of Na­t­u­ral His­to­ry in New York and col­leagues an­a­lysed fos­sil re­mains of a small, squirrel-sized mam­mal that lived in In­ner Mon­go­lia around 125 mil­lion years ago, dur­ing the so-called Mes­o­zo­ic era.

The un­u­su­al beast had sharp teeth, elon­gat­ed limbs and tail, and a fur-covered fold of skin mem­brane that was prob­a­bly used for glid­ing, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

The ear­li­est con­firmed fos­sil rec­ord of bats is 51 mil­lion years old, sug­gest­ing that the mam­mal flirted with flight at the same time as, if not ear­li­er than, birds ac­cord­ing to Meng.

The researchers added that the mam­mal, which was prob­a­bly noc­tur­nal and dined on in­sects, was about the size of mod­ern fly­ing squir­rels. But they said the an­i­mal, dubbed Vo­la­ti­co­the­ri­um an­ti­quus or “an­cient glid­ing beast,” is un­ique enough to qual­i­fy for its own or­der.


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The first flying mammals may have taken to the skies much earlier than has been thought, a paper in this week’s issue of the research journal Nature suggests. Jin Meng of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and colleagues analysed fossil remains of a small, squirrel-sized mammal that lived in Inner Mongolia around 125 million years ago, during the so-called Mesozoic era. The unusual beast had sharp teeth, elongated limbs and tail, and a fur-covered fold of skin membrane that was probably used for gliding flight, according to the researchers. The earliest confirmed fossil record of bats is 51 million years old, suggesting that the Mesozoic mammal flirted with flight at the same time as, if not earlier than, when birds exploited the skies, according to Meng. Meng and colleagues added that the mammal, which was probably nocturnal and dined on insects, was about the size of modern flying squirrels. But they said the animal, dubbed Volaticotherium antiquus or “ancient gliding beast,” is unusual enough to qualify for its own order.