Upending ideas about the origins of flying mammals

Written by
Office of Communications, Liz Fuller-Wright, Princeton University
April 18, 2023

Flying squirrels, sugar gliders and bats haven’t had a common ancestor in 160 million years, but they form their wing flaps using some of the same genetic ingredients.

That’s the intriguing finding from a Princeton-led team of biologists, detailed recently in the journal Science Advances. In other words, when the seven known flying mammals evolved flight — a phenomenon ecologists call “convergent evolution” — they recycled some of the same genetic parts that had been in their DNA since dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

A sugar glider and a microbat each held in a human hand

A sugar glider (left) and a microbat (right) are about as distantly related as any two mammals on Earth, but their wing flaps share some genetic ingredients.
Photos by iStock.com

The researchers investigated how wing flaps develop in two tiny mammals, the marsupial sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) and a microbat: Seba’s short-tailed bat (Carollia perspicillata). The biologists discovered a network of genes driving the formation of this flap in sugar gliders and bats, and likely other flying mammals as well.

“Among flying mammals, sugar gliders and bats are just about as distantly related as you can get,” said Charles Feigin, first author on the new paper and a former postdoc in Ricardo Mallarino’s lab at Princeton University. “They also have very different mechanisms of flying, plus all the other flying mammals are more closely related to one or the other, so we have pretty good reason to suspect that similar mechanisms are at play in all of them.”

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