Awwww, cuuuute!: Photogenic species get more attention from conservation groups than ugly ones do. Photo NSF.

Giant pandas. Bald eagles. Sea turtles. Certain animals elicit a strong emotional response from people. Conservation efforts focused on these “charismatic megafauna” often meet with success.

But there are other endangered species as well. The red rat snake. The white wartyback mussel. The dromedary jumping slug. These creatures all perform important ecological services. But it’s a lot harder to get people excited about saving a slug.

David Stokes, a biologist at the University of Washington, studied popular penguin books and found that species with a little bit of color in their plumage get a disproportionate amount of attention, even though the plain black-and-white ones may be more endangered.

Stokes feels conservation groups need to figure out what features of an animal catch our attention, and then use that to help the less-photogenic animals. Emphasizing beautiful color might help some of the “ugly” species I listed above.

For a slide show on Stokes’ work, go here.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

How can you not want to save an animal called the dromedary jumping slug?!?

posted on Tue, 03/06/2007 - 4:37pm
James Satter's picture

Charles Darwin wrote about the role of that sexual selection plays in animal adaptation and survival, noting that members of a species that are most attractive to the opposite sex are more likely to mate, reproduce, and influence the direction of future generations.

In a way, this so-called cuteness factor is an extrapolation of that same principle, with different species basically competing for the philanthropic attention of humans. In this arena, mammals and birds, which are easier to anthropomorphize, tend to win out over mollusks and arthropods.

posted on Tue, 03/06/2007 - 11:13pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

The slide show linked above compares this phenomenon to neotony, or the retention of youthful features in a mature organism. Human babies tend to have large heads and eyes, small mouths and noses, and flat foreheads. (Exhibit A: the adorable photo to the left.) Our brains are wired to respond positively to these things -- to find them "cute" -- so we protect and nurture our children. Animals that happen to have similar features -- think pandas and koalas -- elicit the same reaction from us.

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 4:34pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

it is not fair to judge these animals by calling them ugly. All animals are pretty in their own way just like people are pretty in their own way.

posted on Wed, 03/07/2007 - 9:27am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

If nothing is ugly, then nothing is pretty. Or, put another way, if everything is pretty, then the word doesn't mean anything.

"Pretty" means aesthetically pleasing or attractive. As Virginia Postrel notes, "Beauty exists, and it’s unevenly distributed. Our eyes and brains pretty consistently like some human forms better than others."

Now, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- every culture, every individual, has their own definition. And, more to your point, beauty is only skin-deep. A beautiful person is not necessarily a good person (though there is some evidence that physical beauty may be indicative of other traits).

Nevertheless, beauty exists, and people respond to it. I believe we would do a better job saving animals if we accept those facts and use them to our advantage, rather than pretending they don't exist.

posted on Wed, 03/07/2007 - 11:29am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

why do people have to most of the time compare people to something. pretty much what the person just said was people are animals

posted on Tue, 11/20/2007 - 11:15am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I do not care how cute a panda is, I am not going to hug it or anthropromorphize its personality, or other qualities, quirks, or traits. And I am not going to make it into a pet or a museum curiosity in some city zoo. These animals belong in a wild ecosystem.

posted on Wed, 03/07/2007 - 5:39pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

And if the wild ecosystem is destroyed, the animal should go extinct?

Zoos serve several vital functions. They preserve endangered and threatened species, keeping them alive when they aren't doing so well in the wild. More importantly, they educate the public, letting us experience these animals up close. People will support preserving the panda and its habitat when they can see it's real; they are much less interested in preserving an abstraction.

The argument that animals "belong in the wild" or are unhappy in captivity is often itself a form of anthropomorphism.

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 11:03am
Notta's picture
Notta says:

if all the pandas and eagles and other indangered animals die, what are we supposed to do with out them?

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 9:27am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

They are sooo Cute

posted on Wed, 03/28/2007 - 6:28am
Happy happy joy joy's picture
Happy happy joy joy says:

i think animals are being hunted and i think that should stop!!!!!!!

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this is suppose to be a bunny!!! ... ha ha my bad if i looks wierd!!!

posted on Wed, 04/04/2007 - 8:42pm
Nelly F's picture
Nelly F says:

I love Pandas! That is why i am makeing a new song about Pandas

posted on Mon, 11/12/2007 - 8:19pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I love fat pandas.

posted on Sun, 11/18/2007 - 2:45pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

If you feel like writing a song about Pandas go for it. No one in the world can stop you. For myself i would have to say that Pandas are the best animals.....

posted on Tue, 11/20/2007 - 11:13am
libby's picture
libby says:

Omgg i love them they are soo cutee I love them all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

posted on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:33pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This is a disgrace. How can you say that about a cute Panada Bear

posted on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:39pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

heyy whats up??? this is fun to type but it is hard to type...... pandas are soooo cute even if they are fat!!! hehe... i dont think i have evr seen a panda bear up close welll got to go!!!! bye

posted on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:43pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I love pandas they are sooo cute and not fat!!! who would ever say such a thing??? pandas are sooo adorable!!!!

posted on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:45pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I love pandas. Some people say that they are datt but they are really not. I dont get why people say thaat. They are the cutest things in the WHOLE WORLLD. well g2g byee

<3 Libby

posted on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:48pm
chloe's picture
chloe says:

pandas are the cutest thing ever and if i had a gazillion dollas id totally buy one!

posted on Fri, 11/23/2007 - 8:23pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

If I had a gazillion dollas, yeah, I'd probably buy a panda too. I'd also buy a race car, a diamond grill, and Australia.

But, you're right: Pandas are cute, cute, cute!

posted on Fri, 11/23/2007 - 10:52pm

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