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The newly excavated specimens reveal that at a time when magnanimous dinosaurs moved over the land, the winged mammals glided overhead in the sky (representative image) Pixabay.
  • Fossils of forerunners of present day mammals found in China
  • Proof unearthed that primitive mammals from the Jurassic Era essentially glided in the sky
  • With the extent of fossils excavated from China, it is known as the ‘Country of Fossils’

China, August 10, 2017: There are a few things that can possibly leave a scientist, a history buff, and an excited 10-year-old child awestruck and the latest finding from China is certainly one of them! Two remarkable new species of delicate winged mammals were unveiled by paleontologists that are believed to have lived alongside dinosaurs nearly 160 million years ago.

The newly found fossils have been described in two papers published by a collective international team of scientists from the University of Chicago, and Beijing Museum of Natural History.

The specimens aren’t a first of a kind as previously mammalian gliders have been known to belong to the same time period. However, what sets them apart from all previous unearthing are the thin, furry membranes of skin attached to their fore and hind limbs that surprisingly are clearly preserved in the rock.

Paleontologists understand the Mesozoic Era (time between roughly 248 million to 65 million years ago), as the Age of the Dinosaurs. It was popularly believed that primitive mammals from the period were tiny herbivorous and insectivorous, who stayed aloof in the shadows. However, in recent years, this belief was revised that mammals of the time had evolved to forms what were predicaments to their present-day form.

The understanding has now been changed again with the unearthing of these rare fossils that have revealed that at a time when huge dinosaurs ruled the land, the mammals glided far overhead – like flying squirrels.

This has been revealed by the new found specimens’ well preserved skeletal system and their carbonized skin.

“Despite living in dinosaur-dominated ecosystems, early mammals diversified into many ecological niches”, Zhe-Xi Luo, Paleontologist at the University of Chicago told VOA, who led the research published in the journal Nature.

Named Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomyos, they were unearthed about 40 miles (65 km) away in Liaoning province and Hebei province respectively, and are now offering clues and scope for further studies about the evolution of mammals.

These two, along with another glider unearthed in 2006 are being touted as the leaders of the mammalian air-force that have since gone extinct.

Anatomy Of The Primitive Winged Mammals

Mammals are believed to have first appeared roughly 210 million years ago. However, these fossils have revealed that early mammals were not merely existing by cringing at the feet of the dinosaurs but instead, boasted a range of adaptations in anatomy, lifestyles and diet.

It has been revealed that both the fossils have extremely defined hand and feet, and the limbs of these gliding mammals are structurally different from those that simply walked on the ground or climbed trees. It was further notes that both the specimen has hands and feet similar to those in modern day bats (that appeared nearly 100 million years later).

The new found fossils also display very well-preserved teeth, which has helped in understanding the dietary habits of this ancient mammalian air force.

The teeth of Maiopatagium are simpler in terms of their construction and resemble those of fruit bats, suggesting that it ate soft plants and soft fruits. While on the other hand, Vilevolodon has a complex tooth crown with teeth resemble those of squirrels, suitable for eating seeds.

The specimen can shed new light to understand about the anatomy, and lifestyle of the now extinct species. VOA

They both are gliders, however can be divided into segments of the same category based on their eating habits. The two specimens are different interns of their sizes also. Maiopatagium was about 9 inches (23 cm) long, similar in size to flying squirrels while Vilevolodon was a little smaller in comparison, more mouse-size.

After studying their hand and foot bones, the scientists concluded that the two must have used all four limbs to hang from trees, and grip tea branches with their feet like bats. They also display skeletal features in their forelimbs and shoulder joints that are believed to have given them the sustenance to glide.

“The gliding membranes were attached to the four limbs, likely at or near the wrists and ankles,” said David Grossnickle, a University of Chicago paleontologist as reported by VOA.

These traits when combined compliment the hypothesis that different group of mammals followed a similar route to evolution –

  1. Land based, operating on all limbs
  2. Tree climbing, using elongated toes of the fore and hind limbs
  3. Gliding overhead the magnificent dinosaurs

The Jurassic Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon are believed to be the forerunners to modern mammals and show the earliest examples of gliding behavior among extinct mammal ancestors. They also share similar ecology with the present-day gliders, however with some significant differences.

ALSO READ: Scientists in Japan unearth 72-million-year-old Fossil of the largest complete Dinosaur Skeleton

These new unearthings are believed to have coexisted with other life varieties that were experimenting with flying such as small feathered dinosaurs like Anchiornis who were on the evolutionary route to become birds some million years later.

Country Of Fossils

In recent years, an increasing number of fossils have been unearthed from different provinces of China. More recently, a Jurassic site was excavated in Yunyang county that is being understood as the biggest Jurassic fossil site in the world. The 150-metre long ‘Dinosaur fossil wall’ that is currently being excavated by a team of paleontologists is believed to be home to a new batch of fossils. Scientists have, in its entirety found that it was home to five different species of dinosaurs. These discoveries have together led to the country now being seen as the ‘Country of Fossils’. (VOA)

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