Sir David Attenborough's visit to the WA Museum

Video | Updated 5 months ago

This video documents Sir David Attenborough's visit to the Western Australian Museum where he accepted a mounted photograph of Prethopalpus attenboroughi and also a signed copy of the publication where this species was named. Prethopalpus attenboroughi was described by the Western Austrailan Museum's Dr Mark Harvey and Queensland Museum Research Fellow Dr Barbara Baehr and was named in honour of Sir David Attenborough.


Dr Mark Harvey: Now Goblin Spiders are very very small, they are a little bit hard to find - you have got to get down on your hands and knees in forest leaf litter around the world to find them but when we do find them, they're remarkable little animals. The specimens from this new species came from Horn Island, in the Torres Strait in north Queensland. At the moment they are only known on this single island but we imagine that probably surveys in the local area will turn up with additional specimens. 

If anybody wants to send Barbara and I to the Horn Island. We are ready to pop off. We could probably take Sir David with us I'm sure he doesn't mind scrabbling around looking for spiders. 

But these specimens were first collected in the 1980s by Queensland Museum staff. And, as usual with a lot of museum collections, especially invertebrate animals, they were sitting in vaults of the museum, waiting to be discovered and that's when Barbara came along and started looking at the spiders.

Now, Goblin Spiders are small, they're very small. This particular species is extremely small - it's 1.04mm in length, and we've got the actual specimen in the jar, which we can get out shortly. I hope you've all got your reading glasses on you, I know I need them as well.

Now, of course we shouldn't really anthropomorphise between ourselves and things like spiders, but Sir David but there are three defining features in this species, so please don't take this the wrong way. One of them is that it's got smaller eyes than most other species, presumably it doesn't see quite as well as most of its ancestors. And regrettably it has quite different genitalia to all the other species in the genus. So, we won't take that any further we do have children in the audience. And, shortly I'll ask Sir David to point out the most defining feature which Barbara found when she described this species was a lateral process on the clipeus so I'll ask you to point that out sometime as well.

Now, life on earth, to use the title of Sir David's groundbreaking documentary and book is a never ending tapestry of diversity that continually throws up surprises, even for those of us hardened by years literally years, of staring down a microscope, and each time we find a new species it's literally a Eureka moment, helping to put together a staggeringly large jigsaw puzzle, to help document four billion years of evolution. Now Barbara and I couldn't think of a more fitting person to name this species for. I avidly read your Zoo Quest books as a kid in the 1960s by borrowing them from our local library. I'm discovering Agatha Christie novels at the same time. Luckily I became a biologist and not a detective trying to solve murders, and later in my life I was totally enthralled by your documentaries, starting with Life on Earth in 1979.

I think we can safely say that you've inspired an entire generation, or two, or three, by making natural history accessible, in our living rooms, so from all of us in love with nature, thank-you.

Sir David Attenborough

Giving one's name to a species, of course is the ultimte compliment from the scientific community from anywhere. Now Harry Butler has got sixty. I'm not in that league. I do have a few. Materpiscis... a bit of a problem really - a go-go fish from Devonian. The first with internal fertilistion has been discovered from the fossil which have the young developing umbilical cord of course this implies the copulation. So this is the first copulator known in the history of the world, and it's got my name. I do ponder on this, as to the degree of compliment involved. 

I remember going to Go-go absolutely vividly. Go-go, as you know, was first identified by a scientist from London from the British Museum, and they went there and scooped up all these nodules with all these Devonian fish in them, and took them away to London. When I thought we ought to film this particular site, and I came down here I discovered that this wasn't altogether a population popular sort of move as far as people that lived on part of the world is concerned. And so I said, could we have permission to go to Go-Go. And I'm not sure who it was it may have been someone from this museum but I think it was from State, and they said "Why? I want to film the site." He said, "There's nothing there."

[ clank ] It's clearly alive.

And I said, "even so, I would like to film there." And he was very reluctant he said "You blokes, came from London, you scooped up all the obvious stuff, you know, the big flashy stuff and left us to clear up the mess after you blokes had left. And we have now removed everything so there is no point seeing. But if you wanna go, you can go, but I'm coming with you. So we called for a helicopter, and we landed in Go-Go, and I got out and I put my foot on a... on a block of stone, and on the stone there was a rectangular shape, with venation on it - unlike anything I had ever seen before in my life. I picked it up and set it to a scientific guide, and I said "What on earth is that?" and he said "You bastard" Which I deduced a Pom had once again had returned to Go-Go and produced one of the fossils that the Australians had missed. And indeed it was one of these Dermal scutes from one of those very big armoured fish. Which sits in my living room to this day, which my daughter would testify.

So, Western Australia means a lot to me, actually. The first time I came, well it was on the same trip actually, it was a long time ago now - we drove from here up north to Hamlin Pool, in Shark Bay, and at that time, those stromatolites were really not very well recognised in the world, as being what they are, which is the very, very, origin of life and those stromatolites now, I think every text book has them as being an example of where our life began, in these oceans. And that drive up the west coast was a dawning of a new perception for me. The splendour of the West Australian flora simply blew my mind. Day after day we drove through these wonderful flower fields of wildflowers. The identity which I of course had no idea It's an extraordinary place which I really truly treasure in my heart – my time which I spent here – rivalled only by Queensland.

And I go on record, no just for this occasion, people ask me again and again - "Where was your favourite place, from a natural histories point of view, in the world?" And I nearly always say, well I always say, "Cape York." The splendour of Cape York blows the mind, and the time I spent in that rainforest and the time now going onto the reef. So, those are the two sides of Australia, and they have a great place in my heart. That I have the population of an inhabitant of one of them named after me is a matter of great delight. 

I've said to my daughter and my son, when I stop travelling what I think I'm going to do is start really trying to look at spiders and make sense of them. They seem to be the most riveting-ly interesting of invertebrates. I once made a film entirely about spiders and other silk-spinners, and there is one a Bolas spider which I picked up in North America, and one of the camera... - I'm not there when the camera... ...the couple of dozen cameramen work on some of these programs. So I go from one to the other and we will go ahead and do some work and I explained to the cameraman that the Bolas spider saw this approaching moth, had this long filament of silk with a bob on the end and it whirred with a (!!!) and caught these visiting moths. That's what we wanted to see. So I turned up after he'd been working for a week and he took me down and he had about a dozen milk bottles, in each of which there was a sprig of leaves in each one of them had a spider. All the same species - all Bolas spiders and he took me round them, he said "This one, hates light - if you give it flick of light he won't do anything at all. This one, for some reason or other, is very sensitive to noise so you can't film that, you can do fine then someone will makes a noise it will stop. This one, doesn't seem to do anything at all useless, But this one is an absolute darling. He/She will go on working a bolas - doesn't matter what you're doing, what you're saying or what your filming. Now what did that teach me? That taught me that these tiny little spiders, less that the size of my fingernail, had individual personalities. Isn't that astounding.

I'm not sure about this. It is careful in it's judgements, merciless, certainly beautiful, but I will treasure it I thank you very much indeed for this. It is, as I said at the start - naming a species is the biggest of compliments you could ask from any scientific community, and I truly thank you very very much indeed for this one.