See a photo of a chubby panda bear with all that adorable black and white fuzz, and your heart may melt. Pandas are just so cute
. They look like larger versions of beloved childhood teddy bears and their faces seem to convey so much emotion. The world is filled with
paraphernalia in the form of panda necklaces, panda cupcakes and even panda evening gowns (worn by the future Princess of Monaco
). Thus, it is unsurprising that we are so adamant about protecting these endangered animals. The World Wildlife Fund even uses a panda in its logo. Clearly, we as humans respond well to pandas and want to protect them.
We're naturally drawn to the cute. That is simply how our brains are wired, and conservation efforts placing emphasis on individual, attractive species have historically been successful.
On the other hand, the California condor is not exactly the poster child of cuteness. Its bald head is covered with blotchy coloration reminiscent of rotting carrion. Last time I checked, there was no royalty willing to proudly wear clothing emblazoned with the image of a condor. However, these birds are also critically endangered, like pandas, and they have a unique genetic identity.
In order to make us care about the not-so-aesthetically-pleasing animals, conservationists have to become adept at probing the human psyche. Pioneering sociobiologist Konrad Lorenz found in research that humans are attracted to animals with large heads, large eyes, flat faces and short noses. These are traits characteristic of human babies. Evolutionarily, humans need to connect with their own young so they would be impelled to nurture these babies and ensure the survival of the species. Thus in simple terms, we are attracted to those animals that look like our own babies.
Yet some animals we consider cute do not resemble human babies at all. For example, penguins have a distinctly bird-like appearance. As the popularity of "March of the Penguins" attests, we love these Antarctic fowl. A study by Dr. David Stokes examined photos of penguins that are published in mainstream books. He found that the species that were given the most face time had the most vibrant coloration around the eyes or bill. We identify with this appealing feature of vivid hues.
So how do we make the California condor more appealing to the public? Practically speaking, a method that conservationists can use is to focus on the more attractive traits of traditionally ugly animals. In the case of the condor, most promotional images show the bird in flight with impressive outstretched wings
. Notice that the bald head is mostly obscured.
Being an idealistic biodiversity conservation advocate, I hope that humanity as a whole can learn to look beyond the features that we prefer in animals and realize the importance of preserving all species, regardless of their attractiveness. I challenge you to walk around the world and see the life through new eyes. The beauty and worth of each individual species is much more than skin (or feather) deep.
Photo: kevindooley/Flickr, PetraZone/Flickr