Survival of the Cutest

February 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

According to conservation biologists, human preference for cute or attractive animals over less charismatic creatures will increasingly affect which species survive and which ones perish in the years ahead.

To shed light on which animal traits appeal to humans, University of Washington biologist David Stokes examined the aesthetic appeal of different types of penguins. According to Stokes, we often base our attraction on superficial criteria such as color and cuteness.

“It has long been known that humans find some animals more appealing than others. Pandas, lions, and other ‘charismatic mega fauna’ are considered pleasing and most other invertebrates are not,” he writes in the journal Human Ecology. “I investigated the aesthetic appeal of similar organisms by determining human preferences among penguins. . . . While the different species are anatomically, ecologically, and behaviorally similar, they differ sufficiently in size, head and bill proportions and small highlights of bright color that many species can be easily distinguished by the casual observer, and therefore they may differ in their level of appeal.”

Humans tend to prefer animals that possess cuddly traits such as fur, button-noses, or proportionally large eyes, but cuteness is not the determining factor in animals of very similar species. In penguins, for instance, the key determinant is feather color.

“Based on this and other research, it looks like there is a host of possible factors influencing human preferences for other species, and different factors are probably at play for different types of organisms,” says Stokes. “Clearly it is something that is not well understood. The point is that conservation scientists have not investigated this area very deeply despite the critical importance of public preferences and attitudes in determining support for conservation.”

Which members of the animal kingdom are humans most drawn to? In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund conducted an online poll in order to democratically (if unscientifically) determine “the World’s Cutest Animal.” The winner, by a relatively large margin, was the giant panda of Asia. While the indisputably adorable panda is likely to be protected, the continued spread of human civilization into wild habitats is likely to benefit many of the creatures that humans are least fond of, such as rats, cockroaches, and other hearty animals that can subsist on a variety of different food sources, such as human trash.

“Among the remaining majority of species, human actions will determine which survive and which do not,” Stokes argues. “In some cases these decisions will be unconscious or accidental-some species will happen to benefit from a particular conservation measure, land use decision, or change in climate, others will be harmed. However, in many cases we will make conscious decisions to apply resources to protection of some species or their habitats and not others. This is already happening. For example, huge amounts of money have been spent on recovery of the bald eagle and a few other endangered charismatic vertebrates. Very little has been spent on recovery of the vast majority of (less appealing) listed species.

“In the long run,” he continues, “this approach is likely to fail us even for the species that appeal to us, because the charismatic species we love are often dependent on the less-charismatic species we care less about. For example, most people seem to care a great deal about penguins, but to really protect penguins in the wild, we need to protect the small fish and crustaceans on which they depend. If those less charismatic organisms disappear, penguins will do likewise, despite their great human appeal.”

-Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2007.

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