Ugly animals also deserve conservation

2021-06-14

Thinking aesthetically when it comes to biodiversity threatens the balance of nature, writes Brian Danley and colleagues in a new scientific article.

Both the blobfish and the panda are at risk of extinction. But animals that we do not know and do not perceive as cute are in danger because ugly animals are not valued as highly as cute, well-known animals or animals that have a symbolic value.

Cute animals are valued higher than ugly endangered animals. The proximity to the endangered species also affects our willingness to save it. Thinking aesthetically when it comes to biodiversity threatens the balance of nature, writes Brian Danley and colleagues in a new scientific article.

Humans prefer to preserve animal species with which they are familiar, which they regard as charming or animals with a strong symbolic value, even if these species are at a lower risk of extinction. An ugly and unknown animal species thus runs a much greater risk of extinction. Human preferences can change when the distance between humans and an ugly endangered species decreases; then people living closer to an unknown species may feel a greater commitment to save the species. An international team of researchers has recently tested this theory in a study examining people's attitude and willingness to save five different fish species in Lake Lough Melvin in northwestern Ireland. The authors of the report "Putting your best fish forward" are Brian Danley, Assistant Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Development at the Department of Earth Sciences, Erlend Dancke at the School of Economics and Business at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and Danny Campbell at Applied Choice Research Group, University of Stirling Management School, Scotland, UK.

Tell us briefly about the report

- We have studied how people tend to prioritize between five different fish species. What we see is that we are willing to spend more time and money saving a species we are already familiar with compared to a species that is less known to us but significantly more endangered. This behavior is reflected elsewhere. It is no coincidence that many organizations use the panda as a logo to show that they are involved in animal and environmental issues. The polar bear and the tiger are also symbolic animals that elicit public interest. Using such animals even has its own name; "conservation marketing," which involves using an animal that people immediately recognize so that people become more willing to invest money to preserve that species. Imagine how many times you have seen a panda in a bamboo bush or a polar bear in beautiful Arctic environments used as a flagship in a campaign. The environment in which the animals live also matters. If it is an environment we have seen before and recognize, we are more likely to try to save that animal species. Another factor is similarities with humans. The more similarities, the more benevolent we become. A blobfish is an animal species that does not resemble humans at all, it is not perceived as cute and is not well known, in the same way as the fish we examined.

Did you come up with something new in the study?

- We see that those study participants who live relatively close to the more unknown fish species are those who value the relatively unknown species higher. The proximity to an endangered species thus comes into play. Simply put, we see two kinds of categories of people willing to save endangered species; the ones who recognize the species and then there are those who are willing to save the species because they are in the vicinity of the species.

Those for whom the species is unknown and those who are at a longer distance from the endangered species care the least. There is a great danger in this result because there are many endangered species that fulfill an important task in the ecosystem, but they do not meet human requirements for beauty or charisma and they do not live in our vicinity.

Read the article “Putting your best fish forward: Investigating distance decay and relative preferences for fish conservation” in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 

For more information contact Brian Danley, Erlend Dancke Sandorf, or Danny Campbell

News from the Department of Earth Sciences

Last modified: 2022-08-05