It’s where the buffalo still roam in Yellowstone National Park and the snow falls in September—the state of Wyoming is a draw for skiers and hard to imagine as hot…really hot.  Scientists say nearly 36-million years ago, there is evidence breadfruit trees grew there.  They only grow in the tropics today. 

Dr. Timothy Gaudin

Dr. Timothy Gaudin

Deep in the tropical rainforest of Wyoming all those millions of years ago lived a creature named Patriomanis, the ancient form of a pangolin.  According to Dr. Tim Gaudin, the nocturnal mammals have descendants that still walk the earth today.  Eight living species of pangolins have similar traits.  They are solitary, shaped like a walking pinecone with overlapping scales as their primary defense.  They have no teeth but they do have seriously long tongues to eat ants and termites.

Gaudin, Professor and Associate Department Head of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, spent part of his summer studying the skull of this mammal.  He’s written more than 200 pages about it and an artist has drawn more than 50 images of it.  Gaudin wonders how the Patriomanis came to live in Wyoming.

“Pangolins are able to disperse over a very large area for reasons we do not entirely understand.  We have Eocene pangolins from Europe, one from northern China, and Patriomanis, the only pangolin in Western Hemisphere.  It’s very strange that they spread that far and had that big a range, very unusual for ant eating mammals.

“The other curious thing is when it appears, because it appears at the very end of the Eocene Epoch, which is actually the coldest part of the Eocene Epoch.  I’m not quite sure what that’s all about.  If you were to find pangolins in North America, you might expect to find them earlier when it was warmer.  Maybe it just took them that long to reach North America or maybe there are more of them out there and we haven’t found older deposits and we haven’t yet discovered the right place to look,” Gaudin explained.

Where would Patriomanis find its place on the Tree of Life, a new timeline and description of the way placental mammals came to inhabit the earth?  Gaudin and a team of national scientists from ten different academic institutions in North and South America contributed research to the study, which took six years to compile. The team studied upwards of 4,000 characteristics of 85 mammals and produced 320,000 data entries. The study was recently published in numerous scientific journals, including Science magazine.

“In the study, pangolins are represented by a living form, the Chinese pangolin, but it would be really interesting to put Patriomanis in there.  Patriomanis is well known now—we have almost every bone of the body represented.  One of the interesting things to see is if we add a much more primitive pangolin, does it still fall in the same place?  Pangolins are considered the closest relatives of the living carnivorous mammals, believe it or not,” Gaudin said.

Learn more about the Tree of Life online. Visit www.morphobank.org

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