Discovery: flying squirrels haven't changed in 12 million years

reconstructed flying squirrel fossil
© Courtesy of Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont

Scientists just found the oldest fossil of a flying squirrel yet in Spain.

I wanted to be a flying squirrel for Halloween once. There were no flying squirrel costumes, so I donned an old cat mask, stapled a sheet to my shirt and used a pillow as a tail. Nobody had any idea what I was.

That's because they were all such fools that they couldn't appreciate the awesomeness of a mammal that can fly. Granted, flying squirrels can't fly like birds, but they have large flaps of skin that let them glide 300 feet between trees. Close enough.

I'm not the only one to be enraptured by these coolest of squirrels. Scientists recently uncovered the oldest fossil of a flying squirrel yet in Spain. The fossil is 11.6 million years old, and the researchers found it where they find all the best old stuff: in a landfill.

“Due to the large size of the tail and thigh bones, we initially thought the remains belonged to a primate,” explained Isaac Casanovas-Vilar, a researcher at the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona and one of the scientists who found the fossil.

reconstructed skeleton of flying squirrel© Courtesy of Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont

Flying squirrels evolved from — you guessed it — regular squirrels. The groups split off from each other tens of millions of years ago, though exactly how many tens of millions of years is one of those things scientists have yet to figure out. Thanks to this new fossil, they're way closer. Casanovas-Vilar's team analyzed the fossil and found that the two species probably separated between 31 and 25 million years ago.

They also noted that this ancient flying squirrel looks really, really similar to modern flying squirrels. The scientists said their bones were so much alike that some species of flying squirrels gliding through forests in tropical Asia today are basically living fossils. Humans living 30 million years ago, by contrast, looked something like this:

Aegyptopithecus, which means © Wikipedia

By the way, that's not just a random picture of a monkey. That's an aegyptopithecus, a species that lived before apes and monkeys split off from each other to turn into things like humans. So ... Really. That's what we looked like then. We had to keep evolving because we didn't have cool skin flaps that let us fly.

Cheers to the flying squirrels. If they've been kicking it this long, they're doing something right.

Discovery: flying squirrels haven't changed in 12 million years
Scientists just found the oldest fossil of a flying squirrel yet in Spain.

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