On 8 May 2016 the nature broadcaster David Attenborough celebrated his 90th birthday. That evening a new dragonfly species from Madagascar – Acisoma attenboroughi – was unveiled in the BBC One programme Attenborough at 90. Species author Klaas-Douwe B. Dijkstra explained on the show and in his article, Restore our Sense of Species, why he named this new species of Attenborough’s favourite insect after the birthday boy.
The Sir David dragonfly’s beauty and sensitivity stand for the state and needs of nature before our own. They do not help feed us like bees and fish, they are not feared and persecuted like mosquitoes and snakes, nor are they studied as proxies of human psyche and society like ants and apes. We admire dragonflies purely for what they are, just as the unconditional love for nature taught by Attenborough.
In few places is the creative force of nature and the destructive force of mankind more apparent than in Madagascar. Fortunately the new species can be seen easily across the island. Although confirmed in the molecular lab, a taxonomic eye in the field and museum first revealed that this particular species had been confused with its African and Asian counterparts for 174 years.
Attenborough received a framed portrait of his dragonfly namesake taken by Erland Nielsen, an engineer whose passion is to photograph all the world’s 6,000 species. Nielsen joined a tour led by Dijkstra last January to amass images and funds for a booklet on Madagascar’s dragonflies. Neglected since European monographs written in the 1950s, this book will finally introduce these freshwater sentinels to the Malagasy.
Today, more than ever, we need people like Attenborough to transform society with an awareness of other life. While humans’ impact on the natural world is beyond apocalyptic, our conscience of its diversity seems medieval. Most of the unknown, however conspicuous, is simply not being looked for:
Intact biodiversity is the undeniable proof we can inhabit our environment without destroying it, but the position of those exposing the evidence is weak, just when we need them most. The greatest justification of naturalists’ and taxonomists’ work lies not in biodiversity’s enormous contribution to human wellbeing, but in the moral counterweight they can offer to life’s unsustainable exploitation.
The core value of natural history and taxonomy is a consciousness of all species’ existence and impact. However, few in society see this ‘species sense’ as their first responsibility. With nature held hostage by our growing demands, environmental consultancy and conservation have little time left to find out who they work for, but even the science of biology and natural history museums now struggle to preserve and improve species sense.
Each species is a world parallel to our own, invoking a sense of being among equals. That consciousness is what Attenborough has taught us and that we must expand.
Watch the two-minute video interview that was aired on BBC One’s Attenborough at 90 here:
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