Ugly conservation

You like puppies.

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Aw, a puppy! Engage stupid face now!

You like kittens.

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You like bunnies.

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But do you like snakes?

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I do! I do!

Or sharks?

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Or spiders?

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Okay, some of you, my biology friends will indeed love snakes, sharks & spiders. I like snakes, I’m fascinated with sharks, but scream and jump away in terror at the sight of a hairy-legged tarantula. So clearly I have my issues—my hubby could likely give you a longer list if you’re interested.

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But I find these preferences for species to be fascinating. As mammals, we’re hard-wired to find things that look like babies cute. It all stems from our evolutionary biology. We find the youngest of our species to be compelling to watch and cuddle. By giving them attention, and tending to their needs, it ensures they will survive to adulthood and hence reproduce, and pass on our genes. Our babies have a similar look: large eyes relative to their face, large head relative to their body, a body that’s soft, squishy and huggable.

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Me with my first baby and my fur baby

But other mammals have the same sorts of traits in their infancy and childhood. And let’s be honest, some of them stay cute and adorable to us even once they get their toothy, scratchy, adult forms. I mean, would you let your pet tarantula bite you for fun? Would you like it if your leopard gecko pooped on your pillow?

But if Fluffy has an accident, at most there’s a scolding and then some long talks while cuddling.

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Oh wait, is that just me?

So that evolutionary trait that allowed us to make sure we would raise our own children, and those of our family members means that it’s not just babies that make us melt. Anything that looks somewhat babyish to us, that lets us cuddle and care for them, all give us the same endorphine hit. It doesn’t really matter what the species is, just that we have a sense of caring for it. For some of us, that’s having a pooch to crawl into your lap in the evenings. For some of us, it’s hoarding cats.

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But generally, we’re not driven to want to protect those species that don’t have those “cute” traits. And maybe that’s why conservation has tried to rally support around “charismatic megafauna,” species that we inherently are attracted to and want to protect. Sadly, it means that the ugly species, the scary species, and the boring species get overlooked. And while our attempts to save the “cute” species may be working in some cases, it isn’t in many cases. And so we become disheartened that the caribou continues to decline, or the fishing cat went extinct last year.

The peacock tarantula, which is highly endangered, needs a PR campaign and Photoshopped photos to illicit that protective response from us.

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Because it’s hard to fight your evolutionary biology. Unless you’re one of those freaky entomologists – the psychopath of the biology world.

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