Sir David Attenborough Celebrated With Newly Discovered Flatworm



British documentary maker Sir David Attenborough turned 90 this year. (Photo: Jeaneeem - CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr)
Sir David Attenborough Celebrated With Newly Discovered Flatworm
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Jonas Van Boxel

A team of Czech, Belgian and Austrian researchers from Masaryk University and the University of Graz has discovered two new flatworm species in the waters of Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. One of them was coined Cichlidogyrus attenboroughi, after the legendary BBC documentary maker and naturalist, as a present for his 90th birthday.

When discovering new species, scientists are relatively free in the choice of their names. This opportunity may hence be used to honour colleagues and friends, lovers and celebrities. And who better to honour as a biologist than Sir David Attenborough, in gratitude for his contributions to nature education, inspiring millions worldwide?

“The thought had crossed our minds already for some time, but dedicating a species to Sir David seemed especially fitting at the occasion of his 90th birthday” says Nikol Kmentová, a Czech parasitologist who described the new species. Numerous animals and plants have been named after Attenborough, but this seems to be the first flatworm and probably the tiniest organisms named after him.


The newly discovered worms, whose descriptions were published in the specialised journal Parasites & Vectors, live as parasites on the gills of deep-water fishes in the Lake. Despite their minute size (a few tenths of a millimetre long), these modest critters are impressive testimony to what evolution is capable of. Considering that many of these worms are relatively picky as regards their choice of fish to settle on, imagine that they have to find, in this immense body of water, a suitable fish shortly after hatching from their egg, and then remain attached to its gills for the rest of their life…

“The unique ecosystem of Lake Tanganyika is a well-known showcase of how diverse life underwater can be. Studying its deep-water fishes is a particular challenge – hence we mainly worked with fish landed by fishermen for the commercial market” explains Stephan Koblmüller, an Austrian biologist specialising in the Lake’s astonishing diversity of fishes.

“Belgian researchers have explored Lake Tanganyika for many years” adds supervisor Maarten Vanhove from our Institute, “often in collaboration with scientists from the neighbouring countries. RBINS in particular has a rich history in scientific research on Lake Tanganyiaka, as it was responsible for the management of the national parks of DR Congo until its independence in 1960. THe archives of scientific missions between 1925 and 1960, including an exploration of the lake in 1946-1947, were recently digitalised by CEBioS.

“By focusing on the Lake’s parasite fauna, we want to highlight that apart from the Lake’s famous fish fauna, this ancient ecosystem harbours much more biodiversity than meets the eye – also a recurring message in the work of Sir David” Vanhove concludes.

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