Species survival may depend on physical attractiveness to humans
Cuteness or physical attractiveness to humans may determine whether a species goes extinct or not, says a conservation biologist from the University of Washington, Bothell.
Writing in the online edition of the journal Human Ecology, David Stokes says that human preference for details as trivial as the “small color highlights a creature displays” could influence whether the species is protected or ignored as it approaches extinction. His results lend support to the use of “flagship species” in conservation. A flagship species is one that chosen to represent an environmental cause, such as an ecosystem in need of conservation. Generally this is a charismatic species like the Panda in China that is sufficiently attractive to garner public support for saving an ecosystem.
The cover of “The World of the Penguin” by Jonathan Chester, published by the Sierra Club in 1996, features Emperor penguins with orange and bright yellow neck and ear patches. The book is one of four used to judge the attractiveness to humans of various penguin species.
Stokes’ findings are based on a study of pictures in four large-format photograph books about penguins. Stokes says that a species’ popularity can be determined by which photographs are selected by a books’ editor who would choose species’ pictures based on their appeal. to the book-buying public.
“Penguins are lucky because they are popular with people, especially right now. But that’s not true of 99.9 percent of the species out there,” Stokes said. “Even the penguin species I found to be among the least appealing to people are tourist attractions.”
Stokes found that the Emperor penguin, featured in the film “March of the Penguins,” and their close cousin the King penguin are more popular than penguin species like the Adelie, Yellow-eyed and Little Blue. He said the ones that seem to be most popular have the “warmest colors in the upper body, the neck and head” and that unlike other animals species, “human preference for particular penguin species does not seem to be driven by a ‘cuteness’ factor,” according to a release from the University of Washington, which continues,
The four books Stokes examined were published in the last decade and were aimed at the popular adult audience. He eliminated photographs from consideration when factors other than the penguins themselves — the surrounding landscape, for example, or accompanying humans — could have played a role in their selection. He was left with 304 pictures that clearly showed specific penguin species, and he concluded that a species’ popularity wasn’t because it was easy to get to, or because it had the largest population, or because of similar factors…
… Color is not the only factor that determines a species’ attractiveness to humans. Characteristics such as size and neoteny — the retention of babyish physical traits such as large eyes and large head — also can play major roles for some animals. Pandas, zebras and elephants, for example, are black and white or gray but are highly preferred by humans. Millions of insects and the countless slimy invertebrates that occupy the oceans are likely not as lucky, Stokes said.
“The work pretty conclusively shows there is a large difference of appeal among organisms, even among closely related organisms,” he said. “For different kinds of organisms, different qualities seem to cause differences of appeal.”
“We do have these big differences in how we feel about living things. These feelings are going to play a big role in what we choose to conserve.”