This fossil of a 160-million-year-old mammal includes the membranes that would have allowed the creature to glide.

This fossil of a 160-millon-year-old mammal includes traces of fur and the membranes that would have allowed the creature to glide. G. Han et al./Nature

Palaeontology

Fossil hints at boom in early gliders

Jurassic gliding mammal was the flying squirrel of its day.

A creature recently unearthed in China would have soared through the trees some 160 million years ago like a flying squirrel. 

The mammal had flap-like gliding membranes between its limbs, and a long, hairy tail that may have helped it to steer through the trees. Jin Meng at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Fangyuan Mao at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and their colleagues date the new species, Arboroharamiya allinhopsoni, to a time when dinosaurs dominated and few mammalian gliders are known. The animal boasts the earliest known example of a mammalian middle ear, although it had five tiny middle-ear bones, rather than the three found in modern mammals. The extra bones may have enhanced sound transmission.

Relatives of A. allinhopsoni had similar skeletal anatomy, suggesting that they, too, were gliders. The find supports the theory that the number and variety of mammals exploded some time between 175 million and 145 million years ago, the scientist say.