Invasion of the Crazies
Three days west of Hawaii by ship, there lies a desolate strip of nothing named Johnston Atoll. Over the last century, the island has played host to a military base, thermonuclear warhead tests, and landfills containing everything from asbestos and Agent Orange to plutonium and sarin nerve gas. But of all the nastiness inhabiting Johnston Atoll, nothing is more dangerous to native wildlife than the yellow crazy ant.
At first glance, yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) are underwhelming. They neither possess massive pincers nor inflict debilitating stings. But as their name suggests, these little beasts have a dark side. The crazies are known as “tramp ants” because they can cross the high seas by driftwood or by stowing away in the holds of ships—and once they hit the beach they’re able to colonize nearly any patch of earth they land upon. Worse, these pirates are voracious. They build massive, cooperative nests and then erupt out of them when the sun starts to set, consuming anything in their path. Sometimes that means eating the tiny drops of honeydew excreted by sap-sucking insects. In other cases, as in this video of the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, it means storming over colonies of ground-nesting seabirds.
As you can see, yellow crazy ants do not make nice neighbors. The little beasts cannot bite or sting, but they do have another weapon: They subdue their prey by spraying acid.
It’s so bad, says Sheldon Plentovich of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that when she’s close to one of the ant nests, the formic acid gets so thick in the air it makes her eyes sting. And it tastes like burning.
“The thing that makes them especially harmful is that they’re capable of reaching really dense numbers. On Johnson Atoll, you could stand there when we first discovered the infestation and your feet would be covered in ants,” she says. “It would make most people want to keel over and die.”
Of course, Plentovich is not most people. She and her Crazy Ant Strike Team—yes, that’s the official name—have been working to eradicate the crazies on Johnston since the invasion was first noted in 2010. She’s also a champion kiteboarder and surfer, and while she doesn’t mind getting ants in her pants, she does take precautions against plutonium contamination when digging up a nest. “I’m super sensitive to that,” she says. “You know, because I had leukemia a couple times.”
Michael Jordan who? I want a poster of Sheldon Plentovich and the Crazy Ant Strike Team for my office wall. (Make this happen, USFWS.)
In addition to hunting down invasive ants, Plentovich has been trying to understand how badly formic acid affects native wildlife—and the preliminary research is not good. The acid appears to interfere with the keratinization (or hardening) of chicks’ bills. In adults, the acid makes birds’ eyes swell shut and causes temporary blindness. I say temporary because it’s possible (though unlikely) that the blind birds that escape Johnston might recover while they’re out at sea. The researchers have no way of knowing, though, because none of the birds they’ve tagged who were exposed to acid have ever come back.
Obviously, this is bad news for struggling bird populations. This tiny, humble strip of sand is actually one of the only suitable nesting sites for seabirds for about 750,000 square miles. (Invasive rats rule the roost on many other Pacific Islands.) When Plentovich and company first arrived on the atoll, the birds had abandoned every patch of earth near the ant invasion. Terns had no problem nesting on the nearby asbestos dump, but yellow crazy ant territory might as well have been scorched earth.
But that was before the USFWS brought out the big guns—by which I mean squirt guns full of cat food, corn syrup, and neurotoxin. Just like the ant traps you use in the kitchen, the sugary syrup attracts the workers to the poison and convinces them to take it back to the nest. Queens crave protein, so the workers make sure some of the cat food bathed in neurotoxin makes it up the social ladder.
This is an absolutely crucial component to ant eradication. In their native habitats, yellow crazy ants produce nests with around 300 queens. Pretty impressive, right? Well, on Johnston, without any of the ants’ natural predators, the crazies boast supernests of 800 to 1,000 queens, and because they’re all sisters, there’s no aggression or competition between the armies. If you fail to kill just one queen, the infestation reboots.
The Crazy Ant Strike Team has endured blistering heat, long hours, and weeks of inglorious sea travel to get the yellow crazy ant population to just 5 percent of what it was three years ago. The last remaining nests may prove the most difficult to snuff out simply because the island is no longer swarming with crazies.
“If they glowed in the dark, it’d be a lot easier,” said Lee Ann Woodward, the USFWS’s resource contaminants specialist on the project. Woodward was the one who initially spotted the ants in 2010 while checking up on the island’s numerous landfills of scary stuff. She joked, “I almost wish they would pick up the plutonium so we could detect them somehow.”
In the meantime, birds are again nesting in their former territory, and other ants (also invasive, though not nearly as big of jerks as the crazies) now occupy the newly vacated territories. Though the job isn’t quite finished, it seems important to take a moment to enjoy this small, uncommon victory in the battle against invasive species. Just across the sea in Hawaii, yellow crazy ants have marauded across the mainland from shore to mountaintop—an infestation likely past the point of no return.
Of course, Plentovich isn’t claiming victory over Johnston Atoll just yet. “It depends on how you measure success,” she says. “For me, I want them eradicated. And we’re not there yet.”
After all, if there’s just one queen laying low beneath the asbestos, Johnston’s ant army will rise again, and the island’s seabirds will suffer. Well, the seabirds and the humans brazen enough to try to save them.
Birds Will Attack Amazon’s Delivery Drones
Konstantin Kakaes had a lot of good evidence to work with for his article debunking the promise of Amazon’s drone deliveries. The FAA doesn’t allow autonomous flight. Drones are too small and unreliable. They’ll cost Amazon a fortune to maintain and oversee. Kakaes had so many facts in his favor, but he left out a big one: Birds are going to hate these drones.
Birds already cause a lot of problems for other things in the airspace. The FAA has tracked more than 121,000 instances of bird-aircraft collisions since 1990. These are accidental; the birds—most frequently gulls or pigeons, or in the case of the plane that landed on the Hudson River, Canada geese—are spooked off a runway during takeoff or landing.
The difference for Amazon’s drones is that the birds will be chasing them. Unseen to us, the skies are checkered with fiercely defended bird territories. Open-country raptors—hawks, eagles, kites, harriers, etc.—don’t take kindly to interlopers on their hunting grounds, and frequently chase, dive-bomb, and take talons to intruders. The confrontations can be even more violent during nesting season when vulnerable chicks are potential prey.
Death From the Skies!
The brown tree snake has waged an extremely successful war in the jungles of Guam ever since it invaded the island in the 1950s. There are now more than 20 snakes for every acre of land, killing native species and disrupting electrical power systems.
But never fear, for backup has been called in. Paratroopers are drifting down from helicopters above to combat the snakes. The parachutes, however, are made of cardboard and green tissue paper, and they’re designed to get snared in tree branches. Their cargo? Dead neonatal mice. Their mission? Get eaten.
Watch an Eagle Steal a Tiny Camera and Take It for a Ride
Park rangers set up a tiny camera in Western Australia last May to film fresh-water crocodiles in the Margaret River. When it disappeared, they figured it had fallen into the water. They were wrong. The camera was later recovered and returned to the rangers, who then strung together the delightful footage above. A misguided young sea eagle snatched up the device and took it for a ride, soaring about 70 miles away, where it was found by another ranger. The debatable highlight comes when the eagle lands and begins pecking the hell out of the camera lens, apparently trying to kill it. (Rangers said they believe the eagle was a juvenile because an adult eagle would drop purported prey shortly after taking flight, securing an easy kill.)
The footage may not be as ridiculously spectacular as some other captured eagle flights, but the lesson is the same: We need to give more eagles cameras.
Koalas Have a Newfound Sex Organ—in Their Throats
Koalas are capable of making sounds much deeper than their size would suggest. Researchers have discovered that male koalas’ bellows, produced during breeding season to attract females, are so low in frequency because of a specialized vocal organ. The bellow suggests an animal the size of an elephant, not one the size of a human toddler.
The fact that sound frequency is related to size is rather intuitive. Mice aren’t squeaking in baritone, and lions don’t roar out in high-pitched squeals. The correlation between voice pitch and size, proposed in theory and observed empirically, is due to the length of an animal’s laryngeal vocal folds. These folds, part of the larynx, are longer in larger animals and shorter in smaller ones. Think of it like plucking a guitar string: the longer the string, the lower the note.
The male koalas examined in a new study in Current Biology had an average fold length of 9.8 millimeters. (Male humans’ are between 17 and 25 millimeters.) This fold length shouldn’t be capable of producing a fundamental frequency below 51 hertz—the number of sound waves per second—and would be expected to produce frequencies around 390 hertz. Yet the average male koala was producing bellows at 27.1 hertz. What gives?
Turns out koalas aren’t just using their larynx, or voice box—they are also using their pharynx, part of the throat above the larynx. They have developed “velar vascular folds” that run along an opening between the nasal and oral parts of the pharynx. Though normally wrinkled up, these folds can be pulled taut when a koala breathes in, allowing sounds as low as 9.8 hertz. This is only the second example researchers have uncovered of a sound-producing organ outside of the larynx in mammals. The other is in toothed whales, which generate clicks with phonic lips in their blowholes that they use for echolocation.
The bellows, which sound like a deep gurgling purr or a forced snore, are extremely important for male koalas. Competition to mate is fierce: The dominant male in the colony mates with all the females, leaving any other males waiting. Male koalas assert dominance over territory or females in two ways: fighting and bellowing. Without the most vicious fighting skills or the deepest bellow, a male koala will have to seek out new territory.
Female koalas have also been observed bellowing, but it is mainly a male behavior. All koalas can also make higher-pitched squeals, often heard as yelps of pain during fights.
A loud, deep bellow will become more and more important for male koalas as their habitat shrinks. The eucalyptus trees they rely on are being knocked down across Australia, often to make way for agricultural development or urban sprawl. The Australian government officially considers koalas a “vulnerable” species.
Koalas are outwardly cute, with their flapping ears and lazy demeanor. But the more you learn about them, the less cute they seem. They have weird, slimy glands on their chests that secrete their scent. They suffer from rampant chlamydia. And they utter the weirdest calls and most pathetic yelps. Maybe cute animals aren't just jerks but also kind of gross.
Update, Dec. 2, 2013: This article has been updated to clarify that toothed whales use lips in their blowholes, rather than lips around their mouths, to make clicks.
Can Animals Really Make Friends With Other Species?
Animals can forge bonds across species boundaries if the need for social contact pre-empts their normal biological imperatives. A cat raised with dogs doesn’t know it’s a cat, the logic goes.
In the PBS film Animal Odd Couples, a cheetah and a dog are shown as friends. A narrator explains that the two grew up together at Busch Gardens and are a regular attraction at the theme park—they race out from behind a fence at 20 mph to the gasps of the audience.
Tim Smith, curator of behavioral husbandry at Busch Gardens, tells me the cheetah and the dog, both born in 2011, were just infants when they befriended one another. The male cheetah, named Kasi, was the only cub to survive a rather surprising birth from what had been considered a post-reproductive mother. He was paired with the female Labrador retriever mix Mtani when no cheetahs were available.
Smith concedes that there have been growing pains. “Part of learning is going through situations where you learn things not to do,” he says. “If Mtani doesn’t want Kasi next to her, she will show him signs, such as with her teeth or with a low-toned growl.”
It’s not clear that this will end well. As Lauren Brent, a post-doc primatologist and evolutionary biologist at Duke University, points out, “These animals are juveniles. I worry that their relationship will change once they became adults, with negative consequences for the dog.”
Strong attachments often arise in captive animals, says Bonnie Beaver of Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Two very stressed individuals may lean on each other for comfort.” In most cases, cross-species friendships are forged most strongly when animals are young. But in captivity even an older captured animal might seek out a friend, including a member of another species.
Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, who has written several books on animal emotions, believes wholeheartedly in such bonds. He told me, “I think the choices animals make in cross-species relationships are the same as they’d make in same-species relationships. Some dogs don’t like every other dog. Animals are very selective about the other individuals who they let into their lives.” Even predators and prey (including his dog and a bunny) can form relationships—which as he points out requires “incredible trust” from the prey animal.
Anthropologist Barbara King from the College of William & Mary says she and other scientists have documented a number of animals, ranging from dogs to hippos to apes, that make bonds with animals of another species. If one dies, the survivor grieves. An elephant named Tarra was close to a dog named Bella and grieved after Bella was killed by coyotes. King says she has also been moved by the relationship between Owen the hippo and a 100-year-old tortoise named Mzee. “In this friendship that formed over years, they worked out a system of cross-species communications,” says King. In some cases, the biggest risk in cross-species friendships isn’t getting eaten. It’s emotional loss.
No, Really, You’re Not Hibernating
When a family member catches you eating leftover Thanksgiving pie straight from the fridge, do you apologize with “Guess I’m hibernating”? Do you believe a biological imperative is urging you to consume pumpkin muffins until you’re the size of a mama grizzly, then burrow under a comforter and sleep until spring? Sorry. Humans aren’t hibernators—and if we were, it would look nothing like what you’re imagining.
For a start, there’d be no winter weight gain. Hibernators need to pack on pounds in the summer and fall; an animal that waited until the temperature dropped to start seeking extra calories would be in trouble. Hibernating bats build up fat during September and October and hibernate starting in November. Bears in Yellowstone plump up during the summer and early fall. Since winter is when food is scarcest, animals that are going to hibernate need to store as much fat as possible before the cold really sets in.
In fact, for at least some animals, hibernation has more to do with a shortage of food than with the weather. Bears that live in a zoo and have plenty of food available opt not to hibernate at all. If a grizzly or black bear could look at its calendar and see holiday parties with passed appetizers booked through the new year, it might never bother hunkering down in the first place.
Other animals hibernate even when it’s warm out and there’s food to eat. The dormouse Glis glis sometimes hits the snooze button and keeps hibernating well into summer, perhaps because being in its burrow keeps it safe from predators. (It unfortunately lives up to its common name, the edible dormouse.) Eastern long-eared bats do the same thing. The short-beaked echidna quits hibernating in the middle of winter so it can mate.
Whenever hibernation happens, serious hypothermia is a key part of it. Animals’ body temperatures may plummet to near the air temperature in their hideout (or “hibernaculum”). The mountain pygmy possum, a pocket-size marsupial in Australia, lets its body temperature fall to nearly 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Bears are the exception; their temperatures drop by only about 12 degrees Fahrenheit while they’re hibernating. Still, a loss of just 3 or 4 degrees in humans is considered a medical emergency.
Although they don’t do much in their chilly chambers, hibernating animals aren’t necessarily sleeping. Ground squirrels sleep only once every couple of weeks while hibernating, and they have to rouse themselves from hibernation to do so. A recent study led by Andrew Krystal at Duke University found that fat-tailed dwarf lemurs—the only primates known to hibernate—also sleep rarely. “Hibernation may, in fact, make you feel quite tired after you come out of it,” says Marina Blanco, another lemur researcher at Duke. On a cold weekday morning in winter, your fantasy about getting back under the covers until you’re good and refreshed is one that hibernating mammals might share.
Blanco speculates that if humans had evolved to hibernate, we’d do it more like the frigid lemur than the tepid bear, since the lemur is a closer relative. We’d stretch and warm up periodically, though; most hibernating animals thaw out once every few days or weeks. (This is when the ground squirrel and lemur seize their naps).
But warming up takes a lot of energy, and the whole point of hibernating is to slow an animal’s metabolism. To keep its body running on no fuel, an animal has to dial everything down: temperature, heart rate, breathing. Bears take a breath once every 45 seconds while hibernating (as opposed to every six to 10 seconds normally). The California ground squirrel’s heart rate drops to as little as one beat per minute. The male pygmy possum’s testes regress until spring. Grizzlies and black bears stop urinating and defecating entirely—so for half the year or more, the answer to “Does a bear shit in the woods?” is actually no.
That’s not to say hibernators are enjoying a lazy, carefree vacation. They can move around to get away from predators or to put their bodies in a sunny spot for rewarming. Female bears, the least lazy of all, give birth while they’re hibernating. Besides sustaining their own bodies through the winter, their stored fat has to provide enough energy to deliver and nurse multiple bear cubs.
A typical hibernating mammal loses about 40 percent of its body weight in the process. Another perk humans might envy, according to Blanco, is that hibernation seems tied to longevity. If we could hibernate, our bodies might age more slowly during that time. However, she adds, we’d have to find someplace to stash the extra fat beforehand. Our closest hibernating relative, the fat-tailed lemur, stores its provisions in its tail—but where would ours go? Maybe the answer will become clear after a few more helpings of sweet potatoes.
What Do Animals Feel When Their Offspring Come Home?
As train stations and airports fill and roads clog before Thanksgiving, many families prepare to welcome back home children they dropped off at college two or three months ago.
Complicated mammals that we are, moms, dads, and other family members react to offspring dispersal from home (that's what we animal-behavior types call it) in a variety of ways. And leaving for college is only one example of dispersal: A child may join the military or cross the country to take up a job. Judging from my own experience two years ago when my daughter left for college, it's wrenching on the heart for some of us: We veer from feelings of loss and nostalgia to feelings of pride and excitement as our young ones venture out into a wider world.
As an anthropologist who studies the expression of emotion in nonhuman animals, I can't help but wonder how these events and the emotions that accompany them fit into an evolutionary context. We know from scientists’ observations that other animals, including close kin such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, express emotions ranging from joy to sorrow. In my book How Animals Grieve, I show that these primates and other animals too, ranging from monkeys and elephants to cows and birds, may express deep grief when a friend or relative dies.
We know too that as a rule, in wild mammalian populations, offspring from one sex, or sometimes both, transfer from the natal (birth) group at puberty to live and mate in a new group. The outcome of this pattern of dispersal is a constant and healthy flow of individuals—and their genes—in and out of the social units in which animals live.
In chimpanzees, it's the daughters who leave. In many monkeys, including baboons and macaques, it's the sons. In gorillas, it is often both.
Primate kids who leave home, then, are part of an evolutionarily favored pattern. What might our closest relatives feel, I have wondered, when a young family member leaves home?
Please Do Not Hug the Sharks
If you scan through social media sites looking for shark videos, you will come across countless videos of people diving with sharks, fishing for sharks, and even saving sharks. But you may also notice a new trend starting to emerge in the shark world: More and more people having hands-on encounters with sharks. And within this group, we are noticing an increase in the number of videos showing people engaging in the practice of shark riding—grabbing a shark by its dorsal fin and allowing it to pull you through the water. This activity has become so prevalent that we recently added the tag “riding a shark” to our blog index at Shark Attack News.
So how did this trend start? The early shark riding videos were primarily released by conservationists who were trying to drive home the message that sharks are not mindless killers that continually roam the oceans seeking out humans for their next meal.
Ocean Ramsey, Kimi Werner, and Lesley Rochat are three of the better-known conservationists who have been depicted riding large tiger and great white sharks. Whether you agree with their tactics or not, the sight of these petite women holding onto the dorsal fins of large apex predators, often two to three times their own size, are absolutely extraordinary and thought-provoking.
These interactions are calculated. These conservationists have many years of experience dealing with sharks, and they have a level of comfort around sharks that most people do not. They did not engage in this activity without preparation, and they acknowledge that there are risks involved.
So what is driving this new surge involving ordinary folks riding sharks? My best guess is either alcohol or an unfounded sense that sharks are one step away from being pets. Either way, it’s a dangerous game that will most certainly end badly for some unfortunate soul down the road. And since many of these interactions are videotaped, I’m guessing we’ll have a new gruesome video making the rounds and sharks will once again be vilified.
The latest shark-riding video (below) emerged on Wednesday via YouTube. We see several vacationers in Bora Bora swimming at the surface while several lemon sharks swim below.
At the 22-second mark, one man swims down and grabs the dorsal fin of the lemon shark. After riding it for several seconds, he does something truly shocking. He swings around to the bottom of the shark, gives it a bear hug and hangs on belly to belly. His head is precariously located just below the shark's mouth and he hangs on for several seconds before finally letting it go.
According to Grant Murdock, who posted the video, he too rode one of the sharks but his encounter wasn’t recorded.
Grant wrote in his description of the video that the sharks “were gentle and accepting of our advances.”
“They didn't seem to mind at all that we were riding for free. It was as close to an out of body experience that I have ever felt.”
After posting the video on our Facebook page, the number of negative responses far outweighed the positive. Several people were rather succinct in their assessment of the swimmer and left the following one word comments: idiot, crazy, deplorable, and dumb.
Many expressed concern that the shark would get a bad rap if it bit the person. Samantha R. summed up the feeling quite well: “Sharks are unpredictable no matter what you think. And then when some stupid tourist does this & gets bitten, fatally or not, the shark gets the blame when it was only doing what the nature of it tells it to.”
So when will the next “shark rider” video surface? And more importantly, how will it end? I do believe that it is inevitable that we will see a shark rider video making the Darwin Awards list.
Save the Ugly Animals!
On a bright and sunny morning at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., a young cheetah perches on a log, watching its sibling laze about in the sun. An Asian elephant paces. A panda naps, butt toward the crowd, wedged into the corner of a cave. At each exhibit, a crowd of children and their caretakers squeals in delight over every tiny movement, no matter how dull the action.
Big, attractive, charismatic animals like these are what bring people through the gates. Zoos exist to entertain, so of course they’ll keep the creatures that people like the most. In the past few decades, though, zoos and aquariums have become the de-facto homes for many conservation efforts, particularly captive breeding programs. The human preference for pretty is skewing those efforts.
Ugly animals deserve to be saved, too.
The cheetahs, elephant, and panda are all members of the National Zoo’s captive breeding programs, and they’re pretty typical for such conservation efforts. Daniel Frynta, a biologist at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and colleagues recently tallied up all the reintroductions of mammals that occurred between 1992 and 2009. Of the more than 30 species on Frynta’s list, the only one that was even close to ugly was the African wild dog, and that probably doesn’t count since even the least-attractive canines usually find someone to love them.
Zoos collectively house representatives of only about one-quarter of the world’s bird species, 12 percent of the reptiles, and a measly 4 percent of the amphibians, a 2011 report found. Mammals come in at 16 percent, Frynta has calculated, and they are dominated by familiar families of large, attractive beasts, including felines, giraffes, elephants, primates, and bears. Small, subterranean dwellers with beady eyes tend not to make the list.
A similar trend exists for birds. When Frynta’s group looked at the world’s collection of parrots, amazons, and macaws, they found that large, colorful and long-tailed birds were more likely to be kept, rather than ones that were rare and needed conservation aid. This preference for big and attractive even holds true for snakes.
In animal conservation, the idea of Noah’s Ark comes up again and again, that zoos and aquariums can be an insurance policy for the world’s creatures. We can destroy their habitats and, when we decide we want them back in the wild again, have a spare set ready to go, the thinking goes. This approach has worked for several species, including wolves, Przewalski’s horses, and black-footed ferrets. And when the chytridiomycosis fungal disease threatened the world’s amphibians, many zoos stepped up and increased their collections of frogs, toads, and other critters, creating the Amphibian Ark as a sort of backup storage facility that will one day repopulate ecosystems where the chytrid disease wipes out entire species or populations.
But the truth is that no zoo can be an ark. They don’t have enough space or funds, and a zoo can’t get away with socking away just one male and one female without quickly running into problems of inbreeding. Done right, captive breeding requires lots of space and lots of animals, and choices have to be made.
Right now, that choice is often driven by the desires of a bunch of 2-year-olds and the parents trying to pacify them. Animals’ conservation status isn’t as big of a concern, and it shows. Zoos and aquariums contain only about 1 in 7 threatened species and large populations of even fewer. As a result, they’re missing out on the opportunity to save some incredible rare and ugly animals:
- The solenodon—there are two species, Cuban and Haitian—looks like a cross between a rat and an anteater. Its saliva is venomous, and the creatures have been known to bite without being provoked. But they are vulnerable to cats, dogs, and other introduced predators, and they’re so rare that the Cuban variety was rediscovered in 2012 after a decade-long search.
- Female hooded seals might count as pretty—seals, in general, are pretty cute—but the faces of their male counterparts are dominated by an odd, inflatable bladder that hangs from between the eyes. When a male is threatened, he’ll blow this bladder up, like a big red balloon, sending a warning to the other guy.
- The greater adjutant, a type of stork from Southeast Asia, probably has some PR issues, since the birds are often found around garbage dumps. But as carrion eaters, they fill an important nutrient-recycling role in the wild.
Zoos and aquariums could take a clue from the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, a stand-up comedy troupe currently on the U.K. science festival circuit: They could add another monkey species, like the bald-headed uakari, a red-faced primate found in Brazil and Peru. Or they could take in some blobfish, an inedible species found in the deep waters that was once named the world’s ugliest animal and has been nearly wiped out by trawl fishermen.
“Zoos full of endangered but ugly animals will never make money,” Frynta has acknowledged. But when people know that an ugly species is threatened, they actually perceive it as more attractive and are more likely to give it their support, researchers have found. Zoos and aquariums could convince people to help them save at least some unattractive creatures. In some cases they already have.
Australians have sunk millions of dollars into rescuing the Tasmanian devil, which is not only unattractive but also has a reputation for being vicious. A Russian program is establishing a captive breeding program for a species of saiga, a dour-faced antelope, that’s disappearing from the steppes of Eurasia. The aye-aye—a medium-sized lemur that the locals in Madagascar kill simply because they find them so creepy—is the subject of a captive breeding program at the Bristol Zoo in England.
And on every trip to the National Zoo, deep within the small mammal house, there’s always a group of visitors clustered around the naked mole-rat exhibit, with kids cheering as the nearly hairless rodents—which are neither mole nor rat—scurry about in their maze of transparent tubes. If there were ever a poster animal for ugly, this species would be it, and even they have their fans.
Choosing to save only the ones that bring in the tourist dollars might save clouded leopards or polar bears or orangutans, but we’ll be missing a lot of species that are not only interesting but also important ecologically. Making choices based on how something looks is rarely a great strategy for anything, including conservation.