London, Nov 1 (IANS) The oldest flying fish skimmed over the seas trying to outwit predators 240 million years ago, according to palaeontologists who analysed the fossils excavated from south-west China in 2009.
Fossils in Chinese museum collections have been dated and categorised to reveal that flying fish existed much earlier than previously thought, the researchers reported.
There are no known specimens of modern flying fish older than about 65 million years, but it appears this ancient unrelated specimen evolved the same ability much earlier, the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences reports.
Named Potanichthys xingyiensis, the specimen lived during the Middle Triassic period between 235 million and 242 million years ago - some 50 million years before the emergence of dinosaurs in the Jurassic era.
P. xingyiensis presents "the earliest evidence of over-water gliding in vertebrates," study co-author Guang-Hui Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in China said.
That makes it up to 27 million years older than the previous record-holder, a species found in Europe, said the study, according to the Daily Mail.
Potanichthys xingyiensis is a composite term meaning 'winged fish of Xingyi', the Chinese city near which the fossil was found.
It was only 15 cm long and had four 'wings' - two big, adapted pectoral fins and a smaller, auxiliary pelvic pair - as well as a large, forked tail fin that may have been used to launch it from the water.
The strange-looking, snub-nosed creature was already gliding some 80 million years before the emergence of birds, which are thought to be the descendants of small feathery dinosaurs.
Scientists believe that flying fish evolved out of a need to flee attack from predators. Modern flying fish, which live in tropical and subtropical seas, are able to glide as much as 1,300 ft at speeds of up to 45 mph.