Jan. 24, 2001 -- Mark Knopfler, singer-songwriter of the rock band Dire Straits, received a toothy tribute this week.
Paleontologists digging in Madagascar found a small dinosaur with oddly protruding teeth and named it for the British guitarist, best known for the 1980s songs "Money for Nothing" and "Sultans of Swing." The discovery of Masiakasaurus knopfleri (pronounced mah-SHEE-ka-sor-us nop-FLAIR-ee) is announced on the cover of this week's issue of the journal Nature.
Scott Sampson, the University of Utah paleontologist who named the dinosaur, says the reason for honoring the musician was simple.
"Whenever we played Dire Straits in the quarry, we found more of Masiakasaurus," he says. "And when we played something else, we didn't." Sampson and his colleagues were able to identify the dinosaur by piecing together the fossilized remains of at least six individual skeletons.
The meat-eating Masiakasaurus, whose first name comes from the Malagasy word for "vicious," was unusually small by dinosaur standards, about the size of a German Shepherd. It stood some five to six feet tall and would have weighed around 80 pounds, scientists estimate. It roamed Madagascar some 65-70 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period, a time characterized by the abundance of reptiles.
Paleontologists weren't even sure they had found a dinosaur when they first saw the animal's long snout with its bizarre teeth.
"It was only when we compared it with the lower jaws of other carnivorous dinosaurs that we became convinced," says Sampson.
Bridges to Gondwana
The animal's strange front teeth flare outward, nearly horizontally, and may have helped the animal snag or stab its prey. The back teeth are flat and serrated — typical for carnivorous dinosaurs — for slicing through meat, says Sampson.
"If you have teeth with serrations on them, like a steak knife, it's probably because they were used to eat meat," he says.
Despite likely carnivorous tendencies, paleontologists aren't sure what the dinosaur ate. Modern animals that have similar teeth structures, like shrews, live on insects. But given the dinosaur's large size, it's unlikely that it just ate bugs. It probably also dined on birds, fish and small lizards, says Sampson.
Masiakasaurus could help answer a larger question for paleontologists and geologists. The Madagascar dinosaur appears to be related to others found in India and Argentina, all places separated by oceans.
Scientists say the widespread dinosaur family suggests that Madagascar retained connections to the "supercontinent" Gondwana for longer than previously believed.
Mark Knopfler: I'm Not Vicious
Formal dinosaur names are often derived from Latin or Greek mythology. Sampson says they are often named after people, but it's an unwritten rule that scientists don't name species after themselves.
"You can name a dinosaur whatever you want," Sampson says. "But because a number of us on the team are Dire Straits fans, and the music seemed to bring us luck, it seemed fitting."
Masiakasaurus is not the first dinosaur to be named for a celebrity. Last year, a Chinese scientist named a plant-eating dinosaur after the novelist Michael Crichton, for his vivid portrayals of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and The Lost World.
Knopfler is apparently pleased with the unusual tribute.
"I'm really delighted — this is a very special honor," Knopfler told The Sun, a British tabloid. "The fact that it is a dinosaur is certainly apt, but I'm happy to report that I'm not in the least bit vicious."