60-Second Science

Could Humans Cause Survival Of The Cutest?

A study of penguin species most often depicted in coffee table books raises questions about how human preferences for attractive animals may influence conservation efforts.

You’ve heard about survival of the fittest. But with global pressure on the environment, could humans be influencing a new kind of evolution: survival of the prettiest? Here’s an example—a penguin expert at the University of Washington analyzed over 300 penguin pictures in coffee table books. The goal was to see if some of the 17 penguin species appeared far more often than others. And indeed, they did, in all the books. After eliminating possible bias in pictures that also featured humans or pretty views, the favored penguins were those with red, orange or intense yellow markings. That includes emperors, the stars of the movie March of the Penguins. The research also noted that human preferences for various species have nothing to do with intelligent conservation. Even the ugliest penguin is far ahead of the almost countless reptiles and slimy invertebrates that make up well more of the earth’s population. Think about it—how much have you heard about endangered sea slugs, salamanders, snails and spiders? Chances are they’re not the featured subjects of your favorite coffee table books either.

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