How cute do you have to be to be safe?


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A recent paper by Berta Martín-López and colleagues in Conservation Biology reports how the size of an animal’s eyes appears to be people’s main measure for determining whether they think an animal is important enough for them to open their pocket books and pay for its conservation. This is something one needs to be wary of.

People working in the field of biodiversity are often told that they need to speak the language of economists and include economic criteria in their work in order to help them communicate with decision-makers. Assigning economic value to elements of biodiversity is fraught with problems, but many attempts have been made (e.g. this and this). The Martín-López paper above reviewed some 60 relevant studies covering 50 species to see what factors affected people’s ‘willingness to pay’ for conservation against a range of physical characetristics, usefulness to humans, and scientific factors. The researchers found that eye size (aka ‘cuteness’) was the most important measure of attractiveness and thus the best predictor of whether people would pay for a species’ conservation.

Utility (e.g. for tourism and hunting) ranked second, and scientific reasons came third. However, it seemed as though the more informed the public is about endangerment (e.g through the IUCN Red List), the more willing it is to support an otherwise non-cute and non-utilitarian species.

Something I didn’t mention in my post on tigers  was how striking it was that the Global Tiger Initiative ‘sold’ itself within the Bank so (relatively) easily. There was no major need to justify attention to tigers. But then an Animal Planet survey found it was the world’s most popular animal; it’s large, has large eyes which allow it to hunt at night, and is by any measure beautiful. And its cubs are totally cute. Luckily, tigers are an ‘umbrella species’  so that if we can conserve wild tigers and their habitats then much else will be conserved too.  Of course, in some areas, tigers are cattle killers and the Martín-López study found that this behavior would diminish the willingness to pay for their conservation especially, and not surprisingly, among those most affected. 

The World Bank's Natural Habitats policy tells us that our projects should not convert or significantly degrade natural habitats. It’s fairly easy to get attention when the natural habitats at stake are forests or wetlands, perhaps because they contain large-eyed animals. But habitats which have been harder to fix attention on would include caves which can shelter peculiar and very sensitive ecosystems in which many species adapted to the strange dark environment are restricted to tiny ranges (see lessons on the management of cave biodiversity).



The species in question are not furry, nor feathery – and given that some of them have lost their eyes (what point is there in eyes if there is nothing to see?) they are way down on anyone’s scale of cuteness. Very few people would willingly pay anything for their conservation. Our policy does not however distinguish among habitats, and so caves must be afforded attention, but that can be easier said than done.

One of our projects in China has included some biological surveys of caves as part of a conservation component. The surveys led by Professor Louis Deharveng (one and two) of the Paris Natural History Museum found all manner of small creatures, about 90% of them new to science. Ms Niu Chang-ying of Huazhong Agricultural University was part of the survey team and took a short film which we have just put up on our YouTube channel and which shows the little critters which deserve our attention: 











 Meanwhile, we have other projects – dams, highways, and railways – in the southern part of China which could impact caves and their animals if no mitigation plans were put in place. The film has helped show our engineer colleagues what the fauna is we should be giving attention to, and has helped garner support much more than rather abstract and dry discussions of cave biodiversity. A group of cavers based in China has helped us and our partners to do some solid cave surveys and management plans, and we hope that these will enable us to develop more formal guidelines on what to do in these circumstances. 

Cave animals won’t get attention because of their popularity. They don’t really deserve attention because of any perceived utility – although some cave life-forms living in extreme environments have been found to have pharmaceutical use. But they do deserve attention simply because they are part of natural habitats which are getting knocked by all manner of pressures.  Cuteness should not control everything.




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A. Roubaix
August 15, 2008

It is true that, for some people at least, the degree of how cute is an animal has been reported to be a function of its eyes as seen in situ. But there is a problem associated with your posting.

Among the variables explaining social preferences, Martín-López, Montes & Benayas examined 3 factors influencing the willingness to pay (WTP) for the protection of a species: anthropomorphic, anthropocentric, and scientific knowledge. Regarding the first one, the quid of your blog posting, they say: "Because of the strong correlations between length of an animal and eye size [...] and between weight and eye size [...], we used only the eye-size variable as an indicator of the anthropomorphic effect because it was the most significant."

The eye size that Martín-López and her co-workers refer to is not the size visible in situ (that is, the perceived size of what appears in the eyelid opening) but the *axial length* of the eyeball (their Table 1) -- To say that WTP is related to eye size referring to axial length (also strongly correlated with the length or the weight of an animal), as they do, is one thing. But to say that WTP is related to eye size because the apparent size of the eye of an animal seems to be the main measure people use for deciding whether to pay for its protection, as you do, it is another thing.

Most people are able to judge if the eye's anterior segment showing the iris and pupil through the cornea in one vertebrate species is larger than in another. In contrast, very few people outside of those partaking in the field of comparative visual anatomy (veterinarians, vision biologists, some taxidermists, and even those ophthalmologists who found the time to read vol. I of Duke-Elder) can judge the real eye size of most species. In the vast majority of vertebrate species, the eyelid opening nearly only exposes the corneal region; in addition, not all vertebrate eyeballs are round, nor do they have the same ratio between their anterior and posterior segments, so it is extremely difficult to estimate eyeball size or length by simply looking at the eyes of an animal.

Further, some of the cases illustrated by Martín-López argue that none of the factors they examined reasonably explains the WTP scores. Take, for instance, the order of Artiodactyla in Table 2, where North-American bighorn sheep have a WTP score ca. 22 (five times smaller than the mean score for this order and half the mean score of all the animals in the table), while North-American elks (considered until 2004 to be one species with the European red deers) have the highest score of the whole table. It is hard to argue that the scores for these two canadensis species, having a rather limited commercial value for most people, represent anthropocentric or scientific knowledge factors. It is even harder to say the scores are related to their degree of eye cuteness, as can be seen respectively here { } and here { }, even though more than ever cuteness is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

Finally, very recent statistical evidence that over time the species listed under the Endangered Species Act of the U.S. have decreased in body mass presents a real challenge to the meta-analysis results of Martín-López and her coworkers.

I agree with what you say on the necessity of a cuteness-free approach of species conservation. It is pleasure to say that I admire your dedication to conservation.