Knight Time: The Six Species of Sir David Attenborough…
The West Australian Museum last week announced that it was honouring our beloved Sir Dave for yet a second time by lending his name to a miniature species of spider. His gracious acceptance of the tribute as “the biggest of compliments that you could ask from any scientific community” belies the fact, however, that this is not even just the second such time the hushed hero has had a species named after him; rather it is the sixth. So then, which species were lucky enough to have been considered fit for a Knight’s name?…
- Prethopalpus attenboroughi (Attenborough’s Goblin Spider): The most recently awarded honour, this tiny terror is just over a millimetre in length and is only found on Horn Island off the coast of northern Queensland. Discovered and described by Queensland Museum Research Fellow Dr Barbara Baehr and WA Museum Head of Terrestrial Zoology Dr Mark Harvey, it was dedicated to Sir David out of admiration for his enthusiasm for nature and his ability to make biology accessible to generations of television viewers over six decades.
- Attenborosaurus conybeari (Attenborough’s Lizard): In 1993, after discovering that the Mesozoic reptile Plesiosaurus conybeari had not, in fact, been a true plesiosaur, the paleontologist Robert Bakker renamed the species Attenborosaurus conybeari. Of all the species named after him, it is said that it is this one in particular of which Sir Dave is most proud.
- Materpiscis attenboroughi (Attenborough’s Motherfish): A fossilised armoured fish discovered at the Gogo Formation, Western Australia in 2008 was given the name Materpiscis attenboroughi, after Attenborough had filmed at the site and highlighted it’s scientific importance in his 1979 Life on Earth series. The Materpiscis fossil is believed to be the earliest organism capable of internal fertilisation.
- Blakea attenboroughi (Attenborough Tree): This beautiful tree with magnificent bright blue flowers was discovered in 2007 by American botanist Lou Jost (who works with the World Land Trust's Ecuadorian project partners, Fundación EcoMinga) on the Cerro Candelaria Reserve in Ecuador and so far it is known to exist only in this location. It was deemed appropriate to name the tree in honour of Attenborough as he has supported the World Land Trust since its foundation and has been its patron since 2004 when he launched a campaign to raise funds for the purchase of a rainforest reserve in Ecuador.
- Nepenthes attenboroughii (Attenborough’s Pitcher Plant): Endemic to the Victoria Massif in Palawan, this species was discovered by Alastair S. Robinson, Stewart R. McPherson and Volker B. Heinrich in June 2007, during a 2 month research expedition to catalogue the different species of pitcher plant found across the Philippine Archipelago. The trio named the species after Attenborough as he is a patron of Philippine conservation efforts and a keen enthusiast of the genus - so much so that he even now owns a specimen of the species (given to him by conservationist and botanist Robert Cantley).
- Zaglossus attenboroughi (Attenborough’s Long-beaked Echidna): Also called the Cyclops Long-beaked Echidna, this species is found only in the Cyclops Mountains in Papua province of Indonesia. Known only from a single specimen collected by a Dutch botanist in 1961, this elusive species was feared to be extinct until a team from the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project visited the mountains in 2007 and found burrows and tracks believed to be of the species type. Considered a delicacy and featuring strongly in local traditions, the echidnas are considered to be extremely rare even by hunters who regularly go into the forest of the lower peaks. (I was unable to find any definitive reasoning behind attributing this particular animal’s name to Sir Dave, so I’ll assume that it’s because, like us, they just thought that he’s quite simply, awesomesauce…)
So there you have it; Sir Dave’s Special Six. For now, at least. As I have no doubt in my mind that there’ll be more species salutes in time to come for this Knight of Nature.