NOT READY FOR A CLOSEUP: What happens when an animal that needs saving isn't as cute as a tiger cub? Some biologists explain why human aesthetic preference has played such a big role in protecting the panda--over stranger species like this one, the helmeted hornbill. Image: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/DOUG JANSON
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The bulbous purple burrowing frog may not have made it onto any awww-inspiring tote bags like the unequivocally adorable giant panda. But, an increasing number of people are arguing, the humble frog—and other more homely creatures—is at least equally worth rescuing from the brink of extinction.
One of those people is Nathan Yaussy, an ecology graduate student at Kent State University in Ohio and the creator of the EUT—Endangered Ugly Things blog (recently profiled in The Washington Post). "My goal is just to let people know that these things are out there, and they're just as important as the panda," he says.
[Slide Show: 10 Ugly Animals That Need Help, Too]
A handful of animals that are easier on the eye than, say, the aye-aye, have gotten the lion's share of publicity, funds and legislation for their salvation. Many so-called "charismatic megafauna," which conservationists select as mascots—or "poster children", are chosen for their looks rather than their ecological importance, notes biologist David Stokes of the University of Washington in Bothell.
"If we could raise the ecological literacy of the public and our officials to see beyond the surface value of these animals to their ecological or even utilitarian role," Stokes says, "that would be really valuable." Many endangered insects may actually be more ecologically "important" than an affable Galápagos penguin. But biologists, he notes, often neglect to take preference into account.
Certainly looks can be a matter of personal preference, but the surefire way that an animal finds its way into the public's collective heart seems to be by having infantile qualities—big eyes, round face, wobbly gait (a phenomenon called neoteny). But, as Stokes found from his research [pdf], no hard-and-fast rule dictates which animals gain wide appeal: "Really tiny differences among species can have huge effects on how much appeal they have," he says. He studied a range of penguin species and found that those with patches of bright color received by far and away the most visual coverage.