Like a Gopher in the Sky

Saturday, June 01, 1996
Eomys quercyi, an extinct rodent that lived about 26 million years ago, has been known only from teeth and jaw fragments found in the fossil droppings of ancient birds of prey. The recent discovery in Enspel, Germany, of the fossil shown here affords the first glimpse of the rest of the animal. Now we have a complete skeleton, and we know about the skin and the fur, says Burkart Engesser, a paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History in Basel, Switzerland, who helped identify the fossil. The big surprise is that it was a gliding animal. The four-inch-long rodent had a gliding membrane similar to that of flying squirrels, although E. quercyi is more closely related to gophers. The elbow on its forelimb has a bony spur. This too exists on flying squirrels--it extends and supports the membrane like a kite--further proof that E. quercyi could sail through the air. That the fossil was found in what was once an ancient lake bed suggests that this particular rodent may have made an unfortunate mistake-- it may accidentally have landed on the lake and drowned. E. quercyi may have been able to glide, but there’s no evidence that it could swim.
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