Meet the Brasilestes stardusti – Brazil’s oldest known mammal. Researchers have named the mysterious (and now extinct) beast after Bowie’s space-hopping alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, and describe their new find in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Royal Society Open Science.
Not much is known about the Brasilestes. All we have left of the species is a fossilized premolar tooth, which measures 3.5 millimeters top to bottom and was found in a rocky outcrop of the Adamantina Formation in General Salgado, São Paulo State. Teeth are the most hard-wearing part of a mammal’s skeleton and it is not uncommon for extinct species to be described on the basis of just one fossilized tooth. However, the researchers are not able to say with total certainty what group of mammals this particular creature belonged too, though they suspect it was placental.
“The tooth is small and incomplete: the roots are missing,” first author and paleontologist Mariela Cordeiro said in a statement.
“Small but not tiny,” she added. “Although it’s only 3.5 mm, the Brasilestes tooth is three times bigger than all known Mesozoic mammal teeth. In the age of the dinosaurs, most mammals were the size of mice. Brasilestes was far larger, about the size of an opossum.” That’s roughly the same size as a standard housecat.
The researchers might not know what the Brasilestes looked like but they do know that it lived in what is now northwest of São Paulo State and were around during the Cretaceous Period 87 to 70 million years ago. At this point in history, the planet was hotter than it is today, polar ice caps were non-existent, flowering plants were emerging, and dinosaurs including the Austroposeidon magnificus roamed Brazil. As far as the researchers can tell, it is the only Brazilian mammal known to have lived alongside the dinosaurs.
The bone fragment was discovered a month before Bowie’s death in January 2016 and so the researchers decided to name the new creature in his honor.
It is not the first species to be named after the rockstar. The Heteropoda davidbowie, discovered in 2008, is a type of huntsman spider that had been mistaken for a similar looking and more common species. The Archaeoteleia astropulvis is a now-extinct wasp, which was named after Bowie’s alter-ego Ziggy Stardust. (When translated from Latin, Astropulvis becomes star dust.) And then there was a “glamrock” snake with rainbow-colored scales that was also named after Ziggy Stardust.
Why is this so common? Naming a new species after a celebrity is often used as a way to drum at publicity, especially for less interesting organisms like flies and plankton. It’s not just rock legends that get this special honor. In the past, species have been named in homage to famous scientists, fictional characters, and small-handed politicians.