Oldest Gliding Mammals Shed Light on the History of Flight

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 9, 2017 3:30 pm
A reconstruction of the gliding mammals. (Credit: April I. Neander/UChicago)

A reconstruction of the gliding mammals. (Credit: April I. Neander/UChicago)

The oldest gliding mammals ever discovered are strengthening the case for taking to the skies.

Well, they couldn’t exactly soar like the eagles, but the two new species, discovered in China, at least sampled the aerial life. Both date to around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, when mammals as a lineage were first getting off the ground — both metaphorically and literally. They’re not directly related to the gliders of today, however. Gliding instead seems to be advantageous enough that it has appeared several times throughout our evolutionary history.

Come Glide With Me

Maiopatagium furculiferum. (Credit: Matt Wodd/University of Chicago)

Maiopatagium furculiferum. (Credit: Matt Wood/University of Chicago)

Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos were both small, furry mammals well-adapted to an arboreal lifestyle. The fossils are so well preserved that paleontologists could observe a tell-tale fringe of skin and fur around their bodies, similar to the membranes used by sugar gliders and flying squirrels to float through the air. Lengthened fingers allowed them to hang like bats from tree branches, and their gliding membranes, called patagium, gave the ancient mammals the ability to move from tree to tree without ever touching the ground.

Aside from the fleshy membranes, researchers from the Beijing Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago noticed a few additional adaptations that clued them in to the mammals’ gliding abilities. Their arms and legs were uniquely proportioned to maximize lift, and both possessed shoulder joints that rotate more freely to help catch the wind. The results of their study were published Wednesday in Nature.

By looking at their teeth, researchers concluded that both specimens were herbivores, similar to most gliding species today. It was their reliance on trees and plants for food that likely spurred the development of flight in the first place, the researchers say. Any herbivorous creature living in a forest is going to spend a significant amount of time in the trees, and those that don’t have to come down, where all the predators are, will fare much better.

Both fossils belong to a group of ancestral mammals that have long been extinct. As such, there is no line connecting them to gliding mammals today, indicating that mammalian aerial skills disappeared and re-emerged at least once throughout history. Using birds as an obvious example, flight is a powerful advantage to have. Even as a (temporarily) airborne creature you expend less energy, move faster and evade potential predators — all benefits that make the evolutionary trade-offs worthwhile. It’s not just mammals either, many frog species and even some fish have gained the ability to glide, with evidence that the trait has appeared more than once in those species as well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology
  • OWilson

    If humans had no defence from predators, over eons, they would have developed the ability to jump higher, longer and eventually perhaps gained lighter bones and skin flaps that allowed them to glide.

    Absent extinction events no doubt they would be flying at some point.

    I mean, look at jockeys, and basketball players, they have become well adapted to their particular vocation in a relatively short time!

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      Yao Ming was selectively bred by the Chinese – central oppression that works!.

    • William Holz

      Do we have any examples of gliding evolving in grasslands? I was under the impression that it was largely an arboreal adaptation.

      It’s not like we have gliding hyenas or anything, right?

      • OWilson

        How about hopping insects like grasshoppers and beetles? They all fly!

        Frogs haven’t made it yet, but they still have lots of time!

        Turkeys and wetland birds. They need a good run to get airborne?

        The problem with folks today is they believe the world will end before they do! :)

        • William Holz

          Gliding is unpowered flight, so it benefits from a high up starting point. (I did specify gliding for a reason!).

          Those big flaps get in the way of things like running, so it’s hard to see them evolving at all in ground based quadraped. It’d be a bit odd for us too, our shoulder musculature is uniquely suited to throwing…indeed it’s one of the few things we’re the best at. Not something selection is likely to mess with.

          As for powered flight (insects, birds)…they already had wings and muscular structures to support them before trying to get up to speed on a flat surface became an issue…though each has a different origin of course.

          If there’s anybody that might benefit from being able to fly that has the throwaway parts, it’s probably Salticids/jumping spiders…so perhaps flying spiders are next on the list if anything?

          • OWilson

            Spiders already fly.

            Once born, they take to the air on the next light breeze!


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