We all know and love the poster boys of conservation – from the elegant amur leopard to the gentle manatee and deceptively cuddly-looking polar bear. But what about animals that aren’t blessed with good looks? Do we care about saving them?
Many important species are on the edge of extinction but don’t receive the same media attention or research funding as so-called “iconic species”. Take, for example, the endangered aye-aye, a strange-looking lemur with wiry hair and an eerily long middle finger that supposedly signals imminent death, or the critically endangered Chinese giant salamander, the world’s largest amphibian that’s quickly slithering towards extinction.
What is it about our brains that makes us coo over certain species and recoil in horror at others?
"One of the biggest factors is 'cuteness': physical characteristics such as big eyes and soft features that elicit our parental instincts because they remind us of human infants," Hal Herzog, of West Carolina University’s Department of Psychology, told AFP. He added that the black splodges around pandas’ eyes make our instinct to nurture kick in.
"Compare that to the Chinese giant salamander. It looks like a 6-foot-long, 150-pound bag of brown slime with beady little eyes."
In 1949, zoologist Konrad Lorenz put forward the idea that human babies are equipped with certain features, such as big, low-set eyes and chubby cheeks, that elicit caretaking behavior in adults. Scientists have even managed to identify potential brain regions related to this behavior.
This also explains why we find some animals, particularly their babies, so adorable. Just think of a puppy’s squidgy cheeks or the huge needy eyes of a slow loris. Meanwhile, creatures with little beady eyes – sharks or rats, for example – don’t tend to make us feel all mushy inside.
Still, pouring money into conserving certain attractive species isn’t all bad. When we protect the land in which pandas live, we’re protecting everything else in that ecosystem too.
But why do certain species literally repulse us?
We are programmed to be repulsed by certain gross things that threaten our health – getting too close to poop might give you worms, or eating rotting meat might make you seriously sick. Therefore, creatures that resemble gross things, like slimy slugs or warty toads, don’t tend to attract us.
"In terms of threat to humankind, disease and illness are bigger than being attacked by an animal," phobia specialist Graham Davey told AFP. That’s why a wriggling worm or an incoming mosquito repulses us much more than a large predator like a bear.
A quarter of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction; humans kill 100 million sharks every year, mainly to satisfy Asia's demand for shark fin soup. As apex predators, sharks are crucial members of ocean communities, maintaining the health of underwater ecosystems. They’re fast disappearing, but many people don’t care.
A big culprit is movies like Jaws, The Meg, and Sharktopus. These films portray sharks as horrific man-eaters when really you’re more likely to die taking a selfie than being killed by a shark. You're also more likely to be slain by a popping champagne cork. Or an ant.
Our perceptions of wild animals can have dramatic impacts on their survival, whether we falsely believe them to have medicinal properties or we just don’t care that much because they’re not cute. Many of these species are important to our planet's health and can directly impact our lives – wasps help us produce food, for example.
So remember: don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a salamander by its slime.