In 2017 Sir David Attenborough visited the Australian Museum where he was awarded the title of Lifetime Patron — our highest honour. And to show just how much he means to us, we named a newly discovered genus (a large Tasmanian snail) Attenborougharion.
The new genus currently contains a single species, Attenborougharion rubicundus, commonly called the 'Burgundy Snail'. The snail is actually a colourful semi-slug, native to a small region in south-eastern Tasmania. It is called a semi-slug because its shell is so reduced that the animal can no longer retract into it.
Sir David said he was chuffed that the genus had been named in his honour.
"There is no greater compliment that a Museum, or indeed a Natural Scientist, can pay to another one, than by naming a family, and a name, after that individual. So Attenborougharion rubicundus will be on my wall for a long time to come, and I accept it with the greatest of pleasure and my utmost thanks to you all," he said.
The new genus was discovered by AM’s Research Scientists, Dr Frank Köhler and Dr Isabel Hyman.
Dr Köhler said naming the snail after Sir David was a fitting tribute, and a great opportunity to shine the spotlight on an often neglected area of Australian biodiversity.
“It is a great privilege to have the chance to celebrate Sir David’s achievements in this very special way, by naming a native Australian land snail in his honour.
These fascinating creatures are often overlooked, but that is Sir David's gift. He makes the invisible, visible,” Dr Köhler said.
Dr Köhler spoke of the immense impact Sir David has had on himself and others like him.
“We grew up watching his documentaries from wild and far-flung places, which sparked in us both a profound fascination and curiosity for the natural world. This fascination has stayed with us into our adult lives, and is the motivating force that led many of us to study biology —and guaranteed that we'd be lifelong fans of Sir David’s documentaries!”
And to answer a commonly asked question —yes, slugs are snails without shells! The Burgundy Snail has not evolved into a full slug though, as it retains a fragile and transparent shell which it covers with lappets of the same bright green colour as most of its upper body. This provides a stark contrast to the ruby-red colouring of its head and foot. All-in-all a stunning looking creature!
The snail is particularly susceptible to changes in its environment that are caused by urban development, deforestation, fires, and climate change. And because of its very small distribution, acute dependency on intact habitat, and limited ability of re-colonisation it has been assessed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).