by Hans ten Cate
Sunday, 20 November 2005

Avahi cleesei weighs around a kilogram and eats leaves and buds. It is classified as "endangered" by the World Conservation Union. The lemur belongs to the wollmaki group, but is set apart from its nearest relation by its lighter fur colour and facial markings.

The media has been aflurry with reports that a new species of lemur, discovered in a remote part of Madagascar, has been named after John Cleese. The news was first reported in the 12 November 2005 issue of New Scientist magazine.

A team of scientists, led by anthropologist Urs Thalmann of the Anthropological Institute University of Zürich and his colleague Thomas Geissman, discovered the new species in a nature reserve in a remote region of central western Madagascar 15 years ago. It has taken until now to have the discovery scientifically verified.

The anthropologists named the lemur in tribute to Cleese's promotion of the plight of the animal in the film Fierce Creatures and in a documentary Operation Lemur With John Cleese. "I asked for his permission through his agent," said Thalmann, "and he was really excited."

"I was really touched, and indeed, honoured when Urs Thalmann told me they would like to name the lemur after me," Cleese told a Swiss newspaper. "I'm absurdly fond of the little creatures, and if I had to show any of my programmes to St Peter, upon my arrival at the Pearly Gates, I think I would show him my documentary made about them in Madagascar.

"I help with conservation a bit, here and there, and so will re-double my efforts for our furry friends." In 2002, Cleese visited the San Francisco Zoo to help open the Lipman Family Lemur Forest - the world's largest outdoor exhibit for this endangered species. The avahi cleesei will likely never make it to this or indeed any public zoo - "These lemurs need special leaves," said Thalmann, "and can only survive a few days in captivity because without this special food they die."

Urs Thalmann led the discovery of Cleese's woolly lemur in Madagascar

The small woolly Avahi cleesei has been classified as endangered by the World Conservation Union. Thalmann also told the New Scientist magazine that long legs are not the only attribute lemurs share with Cleese. "Woolly lemurs can't really walk - but they do enjoy silly jumps," he said.

The Science of Monty Python?

This is not the first time that a Python has been honored by a scientific finding in their name.

In 1985, two anthropologists, Meredith Smith and Michael Plane, discovered a fossil of a 15 million year-old python at a site near the Sleigh River in Queensland, Australia. They named the seemingly new genus of snake montypythonoides riversleighensis. The snake was later reclassified by Arnold Kluge in 1993 to be synonymous with morelia spilota, an Australian carpet python still in existence.

In 1997, an asteroid was named after Monty Python. Asteroid 13681, officially named Monty Python, was discovered 7 August 1997 by Miloš Tichý and Zdenek Moravec at Klet Observatory near Ceské Budejovice, Czech Republic. The asteroid will make its next closest approach to Earth on 24 April 2006 (and will pass within nearly 1.87 Astronomical Units from Earth).

A series of asteroids have also been named after the individual members of Monty Python. In 1992 and 1993, an effort called the Uppsala-ESO Survey of Asteroids and Comets was undertaken to find previously undetected comets in the vicinity of Jupiter. They found thousands. The six asteroids in question were discovered on 17 and 21 March 1993 by Swedish astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The asteroids were each named after the Pythons, in alphabetical order:

  • Grahamchapman - Asteroid 9617 (1993 FA5) - discovered 17 March 1993
  • Johncleese - Asteroid 9618 (1993 FQ8) - discovered 17 March 1993
  • Terrygilliam - Asteroid 9619 (1993 FS9) - discovered 17 March 1993
  • Ericidle - Asteroid 9620 (1993 FU13) - discovered 17 March 1993
  • Michaelpalin - Asteroid 9621 (1993 FT26) - discovered 21 March 1993
  • Terryjones - Asteroid 9622 (1993 FV26) - discovered 21 March 1993