London: Analysis of fossils held in Chinese museum collections have revealed that flying fish existed much earlier than was previously thought.
Chinese palaeontologists found that the world’s oldest flying fish glided over the seas in a bid to escape from predators some 240 million years ago.
Named Potanichthys xingyiensis, the newly found specimen lived during the Middle Triassic period between 235 million and 242 million years ago - some 50 million years before the emergence of dinosaurs in the Jurassic era.
That makes it up to 27 million years older than the previous record-holder, a species found in Europe, said the study, which has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The strange-looking, snub-nosed creature was already gliding some 80million years before the emergence of birds, which are thought to be the descendants of small feathery dinosaurs.
Scientists believe that flying fish evolved out of a need to flee attack from predators. Modern flying fish, which live in tropical and subtropical seas, are able to glide as much as 1,300ft at speeds of up to 45mph.
They take to the air mainly to escape from predators such as dolphins, squid and larger fish.
Fossils of the newly named specimen were excavated from southwest China in 2009, according to LiveScience.
Potanichthys xingyiensis is a composite term meaning ‘winged fish of Xingyi’, the Chinese city near which the fossil was found.
It was only 15cm (six inches) long and had four ‘wings’ - two big, adapted pectoral fins and a smaller, auxiliary pelvic pair - as well as a large, forked tail fin that may have been used to launch it from the water.
Dr Xu said this was the first flying fish ever to be found in Asia from the prehistoric Triassic period, a time when the super-continent Pangaea was starting to break up into the different landmasses we know today.
The area where it was found would have been part of the eastern Paleotethys Ocean, which was situated where the Indian Ocean and south Asia are now located.
“As the earliest evidence of over-water gliding in vertebrates, the new discovery lends support to the hypothesis that the recovery of marine ecosystems after the end-Permian was more rapid than previously thought,” Dr Xu told LiveScience.