V antiquus had elongated limbs, like modern
flying mammals, and its skeleton suggested the presence of a stiff
tail, which would have acted as a rudder in flight. The researchers
believed the creature was tree-dwelling, nocturnal and, because of
its sharp teeth, most likely feasted on a diet of insects.
This new find placed V antiquus as the
earliest-known flying mammal. Dr Jin Meng, an author on the paper
and palaeontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, said
he believed the creature lived between 130 and 165 million years ago.
With the then-earliest known flying bird, Archaeopteryx, dating
to about 150 million years ago, this could have meant that mammals
flirted with air travel before birds.
The earliest record of a bat which was capable of
controlled flight dates to about 51 million years ago. Before this
discovery, the earliest-known gliding mammal was a rodent which lived
30 million years ago in the Late Oligocene period.
The researchers believed the then-gaps in the fossil
record for flying mammals were present because the creatures' delicate
flying features are difficult to preserve. Dr Meng pointed out the
fact that this new evidence of gliding flight in early mammals was
providing them with a dramatically new picture of many of the animals
which lived in the age of dinosaurs.
Establishing a new order probably only happens once,
if that, in the lifetime of a lucky palaeomammalogist.