11 cool species named after the great David Attenborough

12 May 2017

What do rubber frogs and rat-eating plants have in common? David Attenborough. Image: dominika zarzycka/Shutterstock

To celebrate the 91st birthday of David Attenborough, we took a look at some of the varied species that bear his name.

Last year, the UK National Environment Research Council (NERC) invited members of the public to take part in its #NameOurShip campaign and select a suitable moniker for its £200m polar research vessel.

‘Boaty McBoatface’ was suggested as a joke but, with the internet being the internet, people voted overwhelmingly for it. Despite receiving 124,109 votes, the NERC went with a more sensible option and named its vessel after David Attenborough, as a “fitting tribute to a man who has done so much to explain the wonders of the natural world to all of us”.

This famous boat is not the first time David Attenborough has been honoured as a namesake, and it’s a natural fit that the man cherished for bringing wildlife into our homes and our hearts has lent his name to some rare species.

This week, Attenborough turned 91, and he continues his tireless work of educating the masses through extraordinary documentaries about the natural world. He is set to return to our screens this year as host of the second season of The Blue Planet, while the team behind the remarkable, and painstaking, Planet Earth is reportedly working on a third season.

Meanwhile, the RRS Sir David Attenborough is due to set sail in 2019.

Attenborough’s rubber frog

Among the species named after Attenborough, his first amphibian was recently discovered in the Peruvian Andes.

Attenboroughi frog

Attenborough’s rubber frog. Image: Dr Edgar Lehr/EurekAlert

The new fleshbelly frog is formally described as Pristimantis attenboroughi, but is commonly referred to as Attenborough’s rubber frog. The amphibian is known to inhabit several localities across the Pui Pui protected forest, a nature reserve in central Peru.

The rubber frog’s colour ranges from pale to dark grey or reddish brown, while the younger frogs are paler.

The authors of the report said they named it after Attenborough in honour of his documentaries on wildlife and for raising awareness about the importance of wildlife conservation.

A very small marsupial lion

Fossilised tooth remains discovered last year at the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland, Australia, have helped to identify a new species of marsupial lion. Believed to be extinct for around 18m years, the Microleo attenboroughi borrows its name from the world’s most famous naturalist.


The Microleo attenboroughi was roughly the size of today’s kitten. Image: JIHUN SHIN/Shutterstock

At a mere 600g, this kitten-sized creature would be no match for the big cats that roam the jungle today, despite its sharp teeth and “teeny-tiny jaws of steel”. Anna Gillespie, palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales and lead author of the study, remarked: “This animal was just so small – it’s quite extraordinary.”

Attenborough’s goblin spider

While animals named after Attenborough come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, few are as small as Prethopalpus attenboroughi, or Attenborough’s goblin spider.

Located entirely on Horn Island in the Torres Strait of Queensland, Australia, the tiny spider measures just 1mm in length and was discovered by Western Australian Museum’s Dr Barbara Baehr.

Goblin spider

Prethopalpus attenboroughi. Image: Western Australian Museum

Researchers said they named the spider after Attenborough for his ongoing efforts to bring biology to the wider public.

Commenting on the honour, Attenborough said: “I take it that it is careful in its judgement, merciless, certainly beautiful and I will treasure it.”

An extinct pygmy locust

As close to an archaeological treasure trove as physically possible, a collection of amber dated 20m years ago was discovered in the Dominican Republic more than 50 years ago. Today, scientists are still extracting amazing discoveries from it. In 2014, for example, a pygmy locust was found inside a piece of amber, representing an intermediate stage of evolution in the life of its subfamily of locusts.

The discoverers of the locust named it Electrotettix attenboroughi, in recognition of their hero. The genus name comes from electrum (Latin for ‘amber’) and tettix (Greek for ‘grasshopper’).

Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna

Zaglossus attenboroughi, also known as Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, lives in New Guinea. This echidna is not a social animal and comes together with its own kind only once a year.

A long-beaked echidna species named after David Attenborough

A long-beaked echidna. Image: Carnivora

The male is larger than the female and can be identified by the spurs on its hind legs. A nocturnal creature, the female will lay eggs after eight days and the babies will stay in the mother’s pouch for around eight weeks until their spines develop.

When threatened, it rolls into a spiny ball like a hedgehog. It was named an endangered species in the 1960s.

The (new) ‘burgundy snail’

The Attenborougharion rubicundus is a green and red snail, first discovered in 2016. Measuring 35-45mm long, this snail can only be found in Australia and a small area in south-east Tasmania.

It has been referred to as the ‘burgundy snail’ but should not be confused with the Helix pomatia, which is also known by that name.

The species was named after Attenborough in 2017 by researchers at the Australian Museum.

A 430m-year-old crustacean

Earlier this year, a team of scientists led by the University of Leicester named a newly discovered fossil after Attenborough.

Cascolus ravitis. Image: Siveter et al

The fossil is a 430m-year-old crustacean, and is a distant relative of living lobsters, shrimps and crabs.

It was named Cascolus ravitis for Attenborough, who grew up on the university campus. Cascolus is derived from castrum, meaning ‘stronghold’, and colus, meaning ‘dwelling in’. This alludes to the Old English source for the surname Attenborough.

An ancient marine reptile

Discovered on the Dorset coast in the late 19th century, the Attenborosaurus conybeari was originally thought to be a new species of Plesiosaur. A re-examination of the fossil in 1993 found that it was something different, and it was renamed Attenborosaurus by researcher Robert Bakker.

The long-necked marine reptile first swam the oceans during the early Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era, between 189.6m and 196.5m years ago.

A plaster cast of the original Attenborosaurus fossil currently hangs in the Natural History Museum, London, and a damaged cast can also be found in Trinity College Dublin. The original fossil was destroyed during the Blitz.

The Attenborough mother fish

Another fossil named after the famed naturalist, the Materpiscis attenboroughi is the oldest known evidence of a viviparous vertebrate – an animal that births live offspring, rather than eggs.

A type of placoderm (extinct armoured fish) the Materpiscis attenboroughi is estimated to be 380m years old, dating back to the Devonian period of the Paleozoic era. This means it predates dinosaurs by more than 100m years.

The 10in fossil was discovered in Western Australia by researcher John Long and his colleagues. The remains consist of the adult fish and – in what is presumed to be its uterus – an embryo and umbilical cord.

The pitcher plant

It isn’t just animals that Attenborough’s name has been attached to, but plants, too. However, few are as incredible or bizarre as Nepenthes attenboroughii, a carnivorous, rat-eating plant in the Philippines.

Discovered in 2009, the pitcher plant – as it is more commonly known – lures rats to their demise with the promise of sweet nectar within its giant frame. But when the creature enters the sack, the slippery edges keep it trapped inside and then the plant’s powerful, acidic enzymes get to work on digestion.

While other plants are known to eat smaller creatures, this was the first that was found to eat vertebrates.

The Attenborough tree

Found only in Ecuador, Blakea attenboroughii is the name given to a tree discovered in 2007 by American botanist Lou Jost. The reference to the renowned naturalist came about as Jost worked for the World Land Trust, a body Attenborough was a patron of for many years.

This Tibouchina urvilleana Melastomataceae is from the same family as the extremely rare Blakea attenboroughii

This Tibouchina urvilleana Melastomataceae is from the same family as the extremely rare Blakea attenboroughii. Image: sutapat.t/Shutterstock

It’s rare to discover new trees, though that could be understandable given that Blakea attenboroughii is found only in a tiny corner of the South American country.

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Main image: David Attenborough arrives to the UKTC Live event in London, September 2016. Image: dominika zarzycka/Shutterstock