The flying mammal probably lived on trees and was able to make gliding flights with its flying skin. Illustration: Chuang Zhao and Lida Xing
Reading Mammals were able to fly much earlier than previously thought and might even rise in the air in front of the birds. Chinese scientists say they found at least 125 million years old fossils of a small mammal in Inner Mongolia. Thus, Volaticotherium antiquus, as the discoverers have called the animal, is the first known flying mammal and has learned to fly more than seventy million years before the bats. The "flying beast of antiquity", as the name of the little mammal translates, lived in the Cretaceous
and was thus a contemporary of the dinosaurs. The researchers encountered fossil remains in the Daohugou Formation, a fossil deposit in northeastern China. The animal differs in several features from previously described mammals of the same time, the paleontologists report. The squirrel-sized animal had extended limbs, a long tail with flattened tail vertebrae and specially shaped, sharp teeth.

The most extraordinary feature, however, is a large fold of skin, which has left its markings between the front and hind legs in the rock. The researchers suspect that the animal could spread these flight skin like the today living Gleithörnchen by stretching out the legs and so could form a wing, which made a sliding flight possible. The extension of the limbs was used to maximize the wing to provide sufficient lift for the weight of the animal. With a size of 12 to 14 centimeters and a weight of about seventy grams, the dimensions of the fossil glider also corresponded to the flying doe.

V. antiquus lived on trees and fed on insects, the researchers believe. This is supported by the large feet with which the animals could cling to branches and the teeth specialized in insect nutrition. Only by a starting point at high altitude is a gliding flight possible. The scientists also assume that the primitive mammal was nocturnal, as even living mammals moving today, such as the Squirrel or the Gleitbeutler are alive at night.

Although the relationship between the low body weight and the large flight skin indicates that V. antiquus was able to sail through the air in a manoeuvrable manner, the researchers rule out that the animal could also make prey there. For maneuvers of this kind, the wing extension was not sufficient. The gliding flight, however, is an energy-efficient method of transportation, enabling the small Ursauger to forage in a large area and quickly escape predators. display

The oldest known flying mammal to date is a bat that lived about 51 million years ago. The hitherto known gliding mammals appeared only twenty million years later. However, the discovery of V. antiquus shows that mammals have ventured much earlier. at about the same time as the birds, if not earlier.

Jin Meng (Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing) et al .: Nature, vol. 444, p. 889 ddp / science.de? Annette Schneider

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