The world's oldest flying fish glided over the seas in a bid to evade predators some 240million years ago, Chinese palaeontologists claim.
Fossils held in Chinese museum collections have been dated and categorised to reveal flying fish existed much earlier than was previously thought, the researchers reported.
There are no known specimens of modern flying fish older than about 65million years, but it appears this ancient unrelated specimen evolved the same ability much earlier.
Named Potanichthys xingyiensis, the specimen lived during the Middle Triassic period between 235million and 242million years ago - some 50million years before the emergence of dinosaurs in the Jurassic era.
That makes it up to 27million years older than the previous record-holder, a species found in Europe, said the study, which is published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
P. xingyiensis presents 'the earliest evidence of over-water gliding in vertebrates,' co-author Guang-Hui Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in China told AFP.
The strange-looking, snub-nosed creature was already gliding some 80million 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 1,300ft at speeds of up to 45mph.
They take to the air mainly to escape from predators such as dolphins, squid and larger fish.
The newly named specimen was described after researchers analysed fossils excavated from south-west China in 2009, LiveScience reported.
Potanichthys xingyiensis is a composite term meaning 'winged fish of Xingyi', the Chinese city near which the fossil was found.
It was only 15cm (six inches) 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.
Dr Xu said this was the first flying fish ever to be found in Asia from the prehistoric Triassic period, a time when the super-continent Pangaea was starting to break up into the different landmasses we know today.
The area where it was found would have been part of the eastern Paleotethys Ocean, which was situated where the Indian Ocean and south Asia are now located.
The only other Triassic flying fish hitherto known were somewhat younger and came from Austria and Italy.
The new fossils are dated to about ten million years after the end-Permian mass extinction about 250million years ago. This catastrophic event killed off as much as 95 per cent of the world's species.
Dr Xu told LiveScience: 'As the earliest evidence of over-water gliding in vertebrates, the new discovery lends support to the hypothesis that the recovery of marine ecosystems after the end-Permian was more rapid than previously thought.'