New Delhi: The Jurassic period is an era that every scientist and/or historian has been obsessed with. They are hooked on to the inhabitants of that time.
It is a long instated fact that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago. Numerous fossils found in recent years have only just made that belief stronger.
A new fossil discovery may just further cement the belief, since it involves the existence of the oldest known winged mammals – 160 million-year-old creatures that evolved to glide and live in trees during the Jurassic Period.
Two fossils discovered in China show that the volant, or flying, way of life evolved among mammalian ancestors 100 million years earlier than the first modern mammal fliers.
With long limbs, long hand and foot fingers, and wing- like membranes for tree-to-tree gliding, the 160 million- year-old fossils of Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos are the oldest known gliders in the long history of early mammals.
"These Jurassic mammals are truly 'the first in glide'. In a way, they got the first wings among all mammals," said Zhe-Xi Luo, professor at the University of Chicago in the US.
"With every new mammal fossil from the Age of Dinosaurs, we continue to be surprised by how diverse mammalian forerunners were in both feeding and locomotor adaptations. The groundwork for mammals' successful diversification today appears to have been laid long ago," he said.
The ability to glide in the air is one of the many remarkable adaptations in mammals.
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.
The ability to glide between trees allowed the ancient animals to find food that was inaccessible to other land animals.
That evolutionary advantage can still be seen among today's mammals such as flying squirrels in North America and Asia, scaly-tailed gliders of Africa, marsupial sugar gliders of Australia and colugos of Southeast Asia.
The Jurassic Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon are stem mammaliaforms, long-extinct relatives of living mammals.
They are haramiyidans, an entirely extinct branch on the mammalian evolutionary tree, but are considered to be among forerunners to modern mammals.
Both fossils show the exquisitely fossilised, wing-like skin membranes between their front and back limbs.
They also show many skeletal features in their shoulder joints and forelimbs that gave the ancient animals the agility to be capable gliders.
Evolutionarily, the two fossils, discovered in the Tiaojishan Formation northeast of Beijing, China, represent the earliest examples of gliding behaviour among extinct mammal
The two newly discovered creatures also share similar ecology with modern gliders, with some significant differences.
Today, the hallmark of most mammal gliders is their herbivorous diet that typically consists of seeds, fruits and other soft parts of flowering plants.
However, Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon lived in a Jurassic world where the plant life was dominated by ferns and gymnosperm plants like cycads, gingkoes and conifers - long before flowering plants came to dominate in the Cretaceous Period, and their way of life was also associated with feeding on these entirely different plants.
This distinct diet and lifestyle evolved again some 100 million years later among modern mammals, in examples of convergent evolution and ecology.
"It's amazing 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.
"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.
The research was published in the journal Nature.
(With PTI inputs)