Land was home to a menagerie of dinosaurs, amphibians and even some of the oldest, now-extinct mammals.
"We think of the Jurassic as "dinosaur world". 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. Vilevolodon was smaller and had strong teeth of a rodent. "But fossils keep showing us the great diversity of small mammals doing numerous ecological jobs they do today", Oxford University vertebrate paleontologist Dr. Roger Benson, who was not involved in the study, said in an interview with BBC News.
"In a way, they got the first wings among all mammals", said study co-author Zhe-Xi Luo, a professor of anatomy and biology from the University of Chicago.
"Not only did these fossils show exquisite fossilisation of gliding membranes, their limb, hand and foot proportion also suggests a new gliding locomotion and behaviour", said Grossnickle. But in the last decade, researchers have found that's not true. It was not until more than 100 million years later that bats, which use powered flight like birds, and more gliding mammals appeared, following the dinosaurs' demise. "Some hundred million years later, the modern mammals re-evolved this gliding adaptation several times over".
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This means that the ability of mammals to glide evolved much earlier than previously thought. 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. Today, the hallmark of most mammal gliders is their herbivorous diet that typically consists of seeds, fruits and other soft parts of flowering plants. After all, which is easier: climbing down from your tree, walking through the underbrush (which could be home to any number of predators) and climbing up another tree; or just gliding from one tree to another?
Besides the gliding animals they've also discovered a range of species, Zimmer reports. 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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Millions of years ago, mammals used to glide from tree to tree by using their furry membranes of skin attached to their front and back limbs. After all, haramiyidans were wiped out by the mass extinction (and if the dinosaurs didn't make it, these small mammals didn't stand a chance.) As Luo points out, you can see the same pattern repeating itself over and over throughout the history of evolution: "Ground to tree, then tree to air".
Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos are stem mammaliaforms, extinct relatives of living mammals, and belong to Haramiyida, an entirely extinct branch on the mammalian evolutionary tree. "They did their own evolutionary experiment to glide".
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"It's incredible that the aerial adaptions occurred so early in the history of mammals", said study co-author David Grossnickle, a graduate student at the University of Chicago.