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Saving the Good, the Bad--And the Ugly [Slide Show]

A hyena might not be as adorable as a tiger cub or dolphin, but a few champions of nature's endangered ugly underdogs say the hideous are just as worthy of protection as the huggable
ugly endangered species



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 EUTEndangered 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.

Yaussy does admit that his method of highlighting especially bizarre animals may not be all that different than that of the panda-promoting World Wildlife Fund, a frequent target of his playful admonishment. The panda is the federation's "flagship species," he explains, which it uses with other charismatic creatures to promulgate the idea that saving the rainforest will, by extension, also save these beautiful animals. Whereas the WWF is "putting on the pretty face, I'm trying to pull in the 10-year-old boy in all of us to say, 'That's so cool!'" he remarks. At the end of the day, his hope is that "by saving the habitat, you'll save everything—the pretty things, the ugly things."

Stokes doesn't subscribe to that tidy idea entirely. Recent research has shown that the habitat of one highly endangered species rarely overlaps with that of another, he says. But he doesn't discount the usefulness of a central species for the purposes of education. The Stag Beetle Project, for instance, which is headed by the London Wildlife Trust, has helped raise awareness—and sterling pounds—for a large, fierce-looking insect.

By and large, he says, communities that can rally around one particular species, whether it's a monkey or a mollusk, do a better job adopting policies to protect biodiversity in general. But the key, he notes, is to be aware of our natural preference for some animals' appearance over others.

"This matters because people are going to increasingly be making the decision about what species survive and what don't," Stokes says. "So we want to be able to make sure that we make educated decisions."

Extinction Countdown blog

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