Considered one of the UK's most trusted figures, naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough is a champion for biological diversity and an important voice against climate change. The progenitor of the modern nature documentary, Attenborough was the first to bring the intrigue of the animal kingdom to audiences around the world. From his first days at the BBC’s brand-new television station in the 1950s to his flirtation with social media at the age of 94, here are 11 fascinating facts about the twice-knighted conservationist.
1. David Attenborough was born the same year as Queen Elizabeth II.
Attenborough was born in London in 1926, the same year as the queen. He and his two brothers were raised in Leicester on the campus of University College, where their father was principal. (Jurassic Park actor Sir Richard Attenborough was his older brother.)
2. A young David Attenborough earned money by selling newts to scientists.
Attenborough was just 11 years old when he struck a deal to supply the zoology department at University College, Leicester with newts. The amphibians, which he found in a pond less than 20 feet from the lab, earned the budding naturalist 3 pence a pop (about $1.21 today). He went on to study zoology and geology at the University of Cambridge’s Clare College, graduating with a master’s degree in natural sciences in 1947.
3. David Attenborough had seen one TV show before starting a career in television.
4. David Attenborough gave Monty Python their big break.
In 1969, Attenborough was appointed BBC director of programs, where he commissioned several influential shows. Surely the most off-the-wall was a new comedy sketch show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Almost immediately, the five performers and their eccentric sense of British humor launched a new era in comedy, not just in the UK, but around the world.
5. David Attenborough created and hosted the first modern nature program.
After turning down a position as the director-general of the BBC, which Attenborough felt would have imprisoned him in endless meetings, he began work on the most ambitious television nature documentary series ever attempted. Life on Earth would be the first program to travel the world to film animals in their natural habitats. When it premiered in 1979, Life on Earth was a massive hit. The BBC sold the 13-episode series to 100 different territories, where 500 million viewers tuned in.
6. David Attenborough really hates rats.
While Attenborough is fascinated by animals of all types, he’d do just about anything to avoid rats. Two experiences have contributed to his fear: waking in the middle of the night to a room full of rodents while filming in the Solomon Islands, and being rudely interrupted in an Indian bathroom when one jumped out of the toilet. “I’ve handled deadly spiders, snakes, and scorpions without batting an eyelid, but if I see a rat, I’ll be the first to run,” he told Entertainment Daily in 2021.
7. More than a dozen species are named after David Attenborough.
Over a dozen living and extinct plants and animals bear the name of the famed naturalist. Among them are the Attenborosaurus (Attenborosaurus conybeari), a marine dinosaur that had a long neck and flippers; a tiny, pale yellow goblin spider (Prethopalpus attenboroughi); and a Peruvian rubber frog (Pristimantis attenboroughi) just over two centimeters in length. Only one public figure’s name has been used more often in the naming of undiscovered species: the Thai princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
8. David Attenborough was knighted twice and holds the record for most honorary degrees in the UK.
Attenborough was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1985 and again in 2020 for his service in television and conservation. He also holds more honorary degrees from British universities—at least 32 of them—than any other famous figure.
9. David Attenborough doesn’t drive.
The knight has never passed his driving test and doesn’t own a car.
10. It took David Attenborough less than five hours to gain a million followers on Instagram.
Attenborough is old-fashioned when it comes to tech (he would rather write a letter or send a fax than use email, for example). But when the 94-year-old joined Instagram in 2020, it took him just four hours and 44 minutes to get 1 million followers, then a record for the platform. The social media experiment lasted only about five weeks before Attenborough found himself inundated with messages and left Instagram for good. His record was broken a month later when Harry Potter star Rupert Grint joined the platform, amassing 1 million followers 43 minutes faster than Sir David.
11. David Atttenborough has had some unusual pets.
A number of wild animals have called Attenborough’s home their own, including gibbons, chimpanzees, lemurs, snakes, and chameleons. Most were temporary residents that went on to become members of the London Zoo, including a pair of bush babies, the male of which established his territory by wiping its urine all over the place. Attenborough told Metro in 2013 that his wife, Jane Oriel, was very tolerant of the menagerie.