David Bowie’s name to live on as Brazil’s oldest known mammal

12 Jun 2018

Graffiti of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter ego. Image: chrisdorney/Shutterstock

The discovery of Brazil’s oldest known mammal has piqued the interest of palaeontologists and music fans alike as it has been named after one of David Bowie’s alter egos.

It has been more than two years since legendary artist and musician David Bowie died, but one of his most famous personas will live on in the annals of ancient biology after the discovery of a truly unique find in Brazil.

In a paper published to the journal Royal Society Open Science, a team of researchers from Brazil and the US outlined the discovery of a fossilised tooth of a mammal that lived in what we now know as the north-west of the state of São Paulo at the end of the Mesozoic Era between 70m and 87m years ago.

Its discovery is important for the region as it is the only Brazilian mammal known to have coexisted with the dinosaurs, but its chosen name has arguably garnered it the most attention.

After some thought, the team decided on calling the newly discovered ancient species Brasilestes stardusti in honour of Bowie, one of the greatest showmen of the modern era, and his persona known as Ziggy Stardust.

The fossil was discovered just a month after Bowie died in January 2016. According to one of the researchers, the fossil just happened to be spotted sticking out of a rock by a keen-sighted member of the team.

Physically speaking, Brasilestes stardusti consists of a fossilised premolar tooth with a maximum crown length of 3.5mm, but much of the original tooth is missing, including its roots.

Brasilestes stardusti

The fossilised tooth of Brasilestes stardusti found in what is now known as the state of São Paulo. Image: Mariela Castro

Changes history of Gondwana mammals

What makes this find important, however, is that the creature’s tooth is three times bigger than all known Mesozoic mammal teeth.

At that time, the vast majority of mammals were no bigger than a mouse, but it is believed Brasilestes stardusti would have been about the size of a possum.

The incomplete nature of the tooth leaves a number of questions still to be answered, but the team could confirm that it belonged to a therian, a member of a large subclass of Mammalia, which includes marsupials and placentals.

Until its discovery, the only traces of Mesozoic mammals in Brazil were hundreds of tracks and footprints left by unknown creatures 130m years ago as they traversed the dunes of the Botucatu Desert in what is now the state of São Paulo.

The solidified surface of those dunes has been preserved as sandstone slabs on which the footprints can be seen.

“The discovery of Brasilestes raises many more questions than answers about the biogeography of South American Mesozoic mammals,” said Max Langer, who led the team.

“Thanks to Brasilestes, we’ve realised that the history of Gondwana’s mammals is more complex than we thought.”

Graffiti of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter ego. Image: chrisdorney/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic