Pharyngula

Volaticotherium antiquus

This sad jumble of bones is all that remains of Volaticotherium antiquus, a small rat-sized mammal that was recently dug up in China. There are two particularly outstanding things about this creature.

i-dc3e0c5b8795240a9dac532f5a5110c2-volaticotherium.jpg

One is that browner layer in the rock: that isn’t an artifact, it’s a bit of soft tissue that was preserved, called a patagium. A patagium is a thin membrane stretched between the limbs, and is used for…flying! This animal probably lived much like a modern flying squirrel (although it is definitely not a squirrel), gliding from tree to tree.

The second surprise is the age. This is a Mesozoic mammal, from Chinese beds that are roughly dated to somewhere around the mid Jurassic to early Cretaceous—it was a contemporary of the dinosaurs. I’m tickled to imagine a diplodocid stretching up its long neck to strip the foliage from a tree branch, and this little guy squeaking angrily and leaping off to fly to the next tree.

i-3f85f1900c42cd0c435d5296c54f26d0-volaticotherium_skull.jpg

Now one more thing we need, but are extremely unlikely to find, is a Mesozoic moose.


Mang J, Hu Y, Wang Y, Wang X, Li C (2006) A Mesozoic gliding mammal from northeastern China. Nature 444:889-893.

Comments

  1. #1 Miguelito
    December 13, 2006

    That moose would bite your sister.

  2. #2 Glenn
    December 13, 2006

    Mesozoic moose bites can be quite nasti…

  3. #3 Tinni
    December 13, 2006

    Were there Mesozoic interspace toothbrushes?

  4. #4 MikeG
    December 13, 2006

    Looks like a 10 cm long Rorschach test to me. Good thing I work with unambiguous stuff like molecular microbial ecology and phylogenetics…

    ConfusedMikeG

  5. #5 dinogami
    December 13, 2006

    >A patagium is a thin membrane stretched between the limbs, and is used for…flying! This animal >probably lived much like a modern flying squirrel (although it is definitely not a squirrel), gliding from >tree to tree.< First sentence, yes; second sentence, no. Flying and gliding, despite virtual synonymy in the general public, are scientifically two very different things. Flying is defined (at least in part) by the ability to generate one's own powered lift -- that is, one must be able to use muscles to gain and maintain altitude. Typically this involves flapping aerofoil wings. Gliders lack this ability -- they can occasionally go up if they happen to catch the right air currents, but this isn't "their own power." So birds, bats, pterosaurs, and numerous insects can fly; gliding lizards, gliding snakes, gliding frogs, gliding squirrels, and the misnamed "flying lemurs," as well as Volaticotherium, cannot fly (alas).

  6. #6 Kseniya
    December 13, 2006

    So… dinogami… Are you saying that this creature isn’t a flyer? Or that it isn’t a glider?

  7. #7 John
    December 13, 2006

    Even better would be a Mesozoic flying moose.

  8. #8 llewelly
    December 13, 2006

    Were there Mesozoic interspace toothbrushes?

    No. In fact, it is theorized that the mouths of Allosaurids became extremely septic, due to the fatal combination of a diet (in part) of carrion, and a total lack of toothbrushing. Some authorities have gone so far as to suggest Allosaurid breath was so fetid natural selection eliminated all creatures unable to recognize the danger – effectively encoding a fear of dinosaurian halitosis into mammalian DNA, eventually inspiring the draconic ‘breath weapon’ notion so favored in fantasy literature.

  9. #9 Doc Bill
    December 13, 2006

    Note from Fearless Leader says we must find Cretaceous mooseberry bush, Natasha.

    How we do that, Boris darlink?

    Only one way, Natasha, first we must find Moose and Squirrel!

    Why, Boris, why is it always Moose and Squirrel, Moose and Squirrel?

    Believe me, Natasha, I don’t write this stuff.

  10. #10 Daron Jones
    December 13, 2006

    I say that thing had wings but couldnt fly. It just had wings for fun kinda like a penguin.
    My theory is that its mouth and teeth weren’t effective weopons on thier own so it adopted a Kamakaze type hunting strategy for killing its prey whereby it would pounce teeth first onto unsuspecting prey from the top branches of a tree.

    This one missed!!

    If it could glide or fly some of its relatives would be around today!! 😀

  11. #11 craig
    December 13, 2006

    There’s a “wayback machine” joke in here somewhere.

  12. #12 Mark Centz
    December 13, 2006

    Investigation via a Wayback Machine is called for. Paging Mr. Peabody!

  13. #13 djlactin
    December 14, 2006

    haw…. moose — flying squirrel.. i get it now!

  14. #14 djlactin
    December 14, 2006

    sorry daron, no time to reply.
    gotta go exercise my pteranodon.
    later maybe.

  15. #15 Shelley
    December 14, 2006

    Ok, silly question here, but why is some soft tissue (like the thin membrane here) preserved in some way while most other tissue never is? Does it have to do with the environmental conditions or the tissue type? Or, luck perhaps?

  16. #16 dualmp
    December 14, 2006

    Great to find such fossils and knowledge advances a little.
    But sad that we can’t save the Baiji (China freshwater dolphin) from extinction after its 20 million years evolution.

    http://evolutiondiary.com/2006/12/14/baiji-chinas-freshwater-dolphin-functionally-extinct/

  17. #17 BadAunt
    December 14, 2006

    A flying mouse? That puts New Zealand’s newly discovered waddling mouse in the shade – although the NZ one could have been a RAFTING waddling mouse, in which case it wins first prize for the pure silliness of the images evoked in this non-scientific head.

    (Abstract here, with open access article available from the same page.)

  18. #18 JohnT
    December 14, 2006

    …why is some soft tissue (like the thin membrane here) preserved in some way while most other tissue never is?

    According to the paper, “[t]he soft structures are preserved as impressions”. Before the tissue itself decayed, it managed to leave an impression that remained when the substrate hardened. This is uncommon, but not unheard of. A classic example of this is the set of feather impressions around the best archaeopteryx fossils.

    Skin (think “leather”) and hair, like feathers, decay relatively slowly. The remains were then buried soon enough after death and the sediment remained undisturbed until it hardened such that the rock retained a “print” of the original tissue.

  19. #19 dinogami
    December 14, 2006

    >So… dinogami… Are you saying that this creature isn’t a flyer? Or that it isn’t a glider?< It certainly seems to be a glider, but it wasn't a flyer. This isn't to say that the animal isn't truly remarkable -- it is for many reasons -- but while it is a spectacular instance of convergent evolution, it has nothing to do with the origin of mammalian flight. It did not have wings (airfoils) — instead, it had more or less the equivalent of a high-control parachute (although parachuting is something different from gliding — parachuting is essentially controlled falling; gliding has more of a horizontal motion component to it). Most people who study flight and flight origins in various tetrapods (I’m not one of them) find that the kinds of patagia that connect wrists to ankles, as seems to be the case in Volaticotherium as well as gliding squirrels, “flying lemurs,” sugar gliders, etc., are wholly unrelated to the evolution of wings — this particular form of patagium cannot effectively become a wing. Instead, they are their own fascinating — but not flying — adaptation.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    December 14, 2006

    I confess, I was guilty of sloppy terminology, going on the “flying” squirrel analogy. These animals were not flyers, they were gliders.

  21. #21 Kseniya
    December 14, 2006

    dinogami: It certainly seems to be a glider, but it wasn’t a flyer. This isn’t to say that the animal isn’t truly remarkable …

    Ok, thanks for the clarification – I assumed it was a glider from the description, but your first post left me a little confused about whether or not you thought it was..

    PZ Myers: I confess, I was guilty of sloppy terminology, going on the “flying” squirrel analogy. These animals were not flyers, they were gliders.

    I dunno Professor, I wouldn’t say “sloppy” – everyone knows flying squirrels are actually gliders. Right? But I guess maybe you ought to have said “…squeaking angrily and jumping off to glide to the next tree” – an image that tickles me, too!

    This all brings to mind the squirrel glider which, like the flying squirrel, is also a glider – but is not a squirrel!

    I love this stuff. It’s fun to be a geek. 🙂

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.