December 13, 2006

Mammalian Diversity in Mesozoic Greater than Expected

Scientists in China have described a new mammal from the middle Mesozoic:

Scientists have discovered an extinct animal the size of a small squirrel that lived in China at least 125 million years ago and soared among the trees. It is the earliest known example of gliding flight by mammals, and the scientists say it shows that mammals experimented with aerial life about the same time birds first took to the skies, perhaps even earlier.

Until a couple of years ago, Dr. Cifelli said, most scientists held the view that such early mammals were simple shrew-like creatures that cowered in the shadows of the dominant dinosaurs, and now “this adds a new dimension to our knowledge of early mammals.”

It's nice to finally see some concrete evidence of this level of diversity in the Mesozoic (and probably other periods noted for dinosaurs). It's hard enough for large bones to fossilize, but for small skeletons and ectoskeletons (not to mention soft-bodied organisms) the chances are even slimmer.

Volaticotherium antiquius, which is the sole inhabitant of a brand new order of mammals, was an insectivore, its tail and limbs "elongated" and well adapted for life in the trees, and possessed a large patagium, a flap of skin connecting fore and hind limbs which would have given Volaticotherium the ability to glide, much like flying squirrels or sugar gliders.

I can't help but wonder if they'll find an ancient white-gloved moose and two Russian spies nearby.

No comments:

Post a Comment