Saturday 14 August 2010

Charismatic megafauna

And it seems we now have some evidence of bias in favour of charismatic megafauna (HT: Dutton).
Conservation researchers argue that only by being aware of our aesthetic prejudices can we set them aside when deciding which species cry out to be studied and saved. Reporting recently in the journal Conservation Biology, Morgan J. Trimble, a research fellow at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and her colleagues examined the scientific literature for roughly 2,000 animal species in southern Africa, and uncovered evidence that scientists, like the rest of us, may be biased toward the beefcakes and beauty queens.

Assessing the publication database for the years 1994 through 2008, the researchers found 1,855 papers about chimpanzees, 1,241 on leopards and 562 about lions — but only 14 for that mammalian equivalent of the blobfish, the African manatee.

“The manatee was the least studied large mammal,” Ms. Trimble said. Speculating on a possible reason for the disparity, she said, “Most scientists are in it for the love of what they do, and a lot of them are interested in big, furry cute things.”

Or little cute things. Humans and other mammals seem to have an innate baby schema, an attraction to infant cues like large, wide-set eyes, a button nose and a mouth set low in the face, and the universality of these cues explains why mother dogs have been known to nurse kittens, lionesses to take care of antelope kids.
And here I'd always thought the manatees relatively charismatic. Opinions vary I guess.

I'd like to see how this affects government conservation funding, both for direct spending and for regulatory measures imposing costs on private parties. Perhaps Brendan Moyle knows.


  1. 1. Do they offer an argument for why we should "overcome our aesthetic prejudices"?

    2. Studying African manatees requires traveling to East Africa* to spend long periods of snorkling in muddy, brackish water. Most biologists would rather sit in their offices and check their impact ratings.

    * thanks, Wikipedia!

    3. They're cuter than walruses.

  2. @FC: 1. I suppose it would be that charisma might not correlate perfectly with the species' importance.
    2. Yeah, I wouldn't want to do that either. But isn't the same true for hippos?
    3. Walruses are pretty cute. But so are baby seals (we just spent the weekend in Kaikoura...)