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Gliding Jurassic Mammals, Huge Dinosaurs and Ice Age Birds

A 160-million-year-old gliding mammal (Maiopatagium) discovered in China. Credit: Prof Zhe-Xi Luo, University of Chicago

A 160-million-year-old gliding mammal (Maiopatagium) discovered in China. Credit: Prof Zhe-Xi Luo, University of Chicago

By John Long

Gliding Jurassic Mammals, Huge Dinosaurs and Ice Age Birds

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Perfectly preserved remains of gliding mammals have been dated to 160 million years ago.

The mammals that lived in the shadows of the dinosaurs were always depicted as small, shrew-like beasts. We now have clear evidence that early mammals had diversified into a number of specialised niches, such as aquatic forms like the beaverine Castrocauda from the Jurassic of Mongolia, and large predatory forms like Repanomamus from the Cretaceous.

Now, perfectly preserved remains of gliding mammals have been dated at 160 million years old (Jurassic) from the fine-bedded shales of Liaoning Province in China. Both Maiapatagium and Vilevolodon show skin-covered membranes extending between the limbs, similar to today’s gliding possums. The work by Prof Zhe-Xi Luo of The University of Chicago and colleagues from China came out as two papers in Nature on 10 August. Detailed study of the lower jaws pertaining to the inner ear anatomy of Vilevolodon shows that the inner ear structure was very primitive compared with other early mammals.

When I asked Luo what was so significant about his discoveries, he replied: “Early mammal history has now turned out to be surprisingly diverse, far more so than we had previously thought. The 160-million-year-old gliders from an archaic group show that even the stem mammals that are the extinct side-branches on the mammalian evolutionary...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.