University of Louisville Magazine

SUMMER 2013

The University of Louisville Alumni Magazine: for alumni, faculty, staff, students and anyone that is a UofL Cardinal fan.

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Rougier, pictured above, in the early years of his field research. Rougier's digs have taken him from Mongolia to Patagonia, where his current efforts are helping unlock evolutionary mysteries about some of the earliest ancestors of humans. 40|LOUISVILLE.EDU in 1993, Rougier accepted a post-doctoral position in Germany to broaden his knowledge of the subject. "A lot of the features that are present in animals are not preserved as fossils — soft tissues, genetic information, hair, muscles, nerves, veins, arteries and so on. Working with fossils, you only get a very reduced picture of what an animal was in the past. And I wanted to really integrate the biology of the living forms into the fossils. These fossils were alive at one point," he explained. Being able to integrate the existing anatomical science with fossils to gain a better understanding of how these creatures lived is what differentiated Rougier from his colleagues early on in his career. Rougier spent a few years at the American Museum of Natural History in New York before accepting his position at UofL. So what's a paleontologist doing at a medical school? According to Rougier, anatomy instruction is a highly traveled route for paleontologists. "Paleontology is ultimately the study of the anatomy of animals. And that's very similar to what we do in medical school. We study the anatomy of a particular mammal — humans — and I'm able to integrate osteology, which I know from my paleontological background, and the soft-tissue background, which I know from my post-doctoral experience." Rougier approaches his instruction of anatomy with the same passion he has for his first love of paleontology. As a gross anatomy instructor, he makes his classes as engaging and informative as possible. First-year School of Medicine student Sarah Couch, 11GA, values the insights and views Rougier brings to his class instruction. "He is full of knowledge and willing to help with students who have questions. Gross anatomy has a habit of always just relating to humans, but his research relates a lot to what has come before us. He would always throw in some anecdotes from his experience and research. It was always appreciated to have another perspective in the lab," she said. When he's not busy teaching future physicians, Rougier is in the field, working to gain a better understanding of early mammalian life, particularly in South America, where his specific subject of research is in its infancy. Recent discoveries have advanced the paleontological discussion of early mammalian life. In 2011, Rougier and his team discovered Cronopio dentiacutus in a remote region of Patagonia in Argentina. Cronopio was a small mammal that lived alongside dinosaurs more than 100 million years ago and looked basically like a saber-toothed squirrel. The discovery is significant because it is rare to find fossils of mammals that lived during this period. "We knew it was important, based on the age of the rocks and because we found skulls," Rougier said. "Usually we find teeth or bone fragments of this age. Most of what we know of early mammals has been determined through teeth because enamel is the hardest substance in our bodies and survives well the passage of time; it is usually what we have left to study. "The skull, however, provides us with features of the biology of the animal, making it possible for us to determine this is the first of its kind dating to the early Late Cretaceous period in South America," he said. "This time period in South America was somewhat of a blank slate to us. Now we have a mammal as a starting point for further study of the lineage of all mammals, humans included." More recently, Rougier's 2012 analysis of a species first identified in 1891 sent shock waves through the paleontology community. Necrolestes patagonensis, which translates into "grave robber" because of the creature's tendency for living underground, was classified as a marsupial. Rougier challenged this Being able to integrate the existing anatomical science with fossils to gain a better understanding of how these creatures lived is what differentiated Rougier from his colleagues. notion, gathering evidence to support the reclassification of the species to another branch of the evolutionary tree that was thought to have died out 45 million years earlier. The new classification holds major significance because it sheds light on the cataclysmic event that wiped out the dinosaurs but allowed some other species, including our earliest ancestors, not only to survive, but also to thrive. These discoveries, added to Rougier's entire body of work, have led to his ascension as one of the world's foremost experts in prehistoric mammalian life.

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