“I like odd creatures with odd lifestyles. It’s fun to look at them. Not much is known about them,” said Gaudin, Professor and Associate Department Head of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences.
Gaudin has contributed his own research about these animals and conducted much more in collaboration with a national team of 20 scientists from ten institutions who established a new timeline and description of the way placental mammals came to inhabit earth. Their study is receiving global attention. Science magazine is among the scientific journals to report their work.
The team estimates that a giant meteor hit the earth approximately 65 million years ago; after that event, dinosaurs became extinct. Within 200,000 years, these researchers believe a small placental mammal emerged.
Working with fossils and skeletal specimens, the team compiled enormous amounts of data and reconstructed a hypothetical drawing of this first mammal, a rodent with a long tail, pads on its feet and whiskers. Gaudin believes it is the most scientifically accurate reconstruction of a mammalian ancestor that’s ever been attempted, based on the best evidence available.
“A lot of things you normally guess at we can actually reconstruct with some authority,” Gaudin explained. “For instance, it has a long tail because we looked at all these tail lengths, we’ve mapped it onto a diagram, and a long tail seems to fit the database.”
What Gaudin calls an exciting “starting point” for mammals took six years to compile. The team studied upwards of 4,000 characteristics of 85 mammals and produced a whopping 320,000 data entries.
“I was really privileged to be a part of this. I’m really grateful to a lot of people who made this possible, first and foremost my colleague Dr. John Wible [Curator and Head of the Mammals Section] at Carnegie Museum of Natural History who invited me to participate.”
Gaudin also is thankful to his UTC colleagues for graciously passing out his exams and conducting labs while he worked on the project. Julie Scott has worked as an artist for Gaudin and taken numerous images of specimens, which could be shared with the team over a cloud-based internet program seen at www.morphobank.org . The images later became part of the final database, which is available to the public online. See the details of the project here.