These animals are so ugly. But we need them.
SIMON WATT’S FAVORITE animal changes all the time, but right now, it’s the Dracula ant. Natives of Madagascar, these tiny ants can snap their jaws shut at around 200 miles per hour, making them the fastest-moving creature on the planet. They get their name, however, from their unusual feeding practices: Adult Dracula ants can’t digest solid food, so instead, they feed their prey to their larvae — and then suck their larvae’s blood in an act of “non-destructive cannibalism.”
“It just works; it’s a good example of evolution not caring what we think about it,” said Watt. Watt knows unusual and often maligned animals; an evolutionary biologist, comedian, TV presenter, and writer, he is also the founder of the UK-based Ugly Animal Preservation Society. Their mission? Save the dromedary jumping slugs and the Lake Titicaca frogs (also known as the “scrotum frog” for reasons that become obvious fairly quickly), the Cuban solenodons and the Chinhai spiny newts. Save the creatures that most people find too icky, too prickly, too creepy to care about.
“As we are so myopic — and looking at the animals that look a wee bit like human babies and caring about them — we miss the majority,” said Watt. “The majority of animals are ugly animals.”
There’s a reason the face of the World Wildlife Fund isn’t the giant Gippsland earthworm, but perhaps it should be. In order for it to work, conservation can’t be some reality TV version of Noah’s Ark, where only the most adorable, the most exciting, the most useful get to stay.
The overwhelming majority of nature isn’t cute, cuddly, noble, or even useful in ways that are immediately obvious, but without them, argue Watt and scientists like him, the earth is going to be a much less hospitable place.
CHARISMA, CUTENESS, CHARM, and commercial usefulness make a huge difference to preservation campaigns, which is to be expected. Conservation needs to sell itself, and a panda makes a much more adorable, palatable, merchandisable mascot than the hooded seal or the red-headed vulture.
In 2011, Dr. Ernest Small, a research scientist with Canada’s governmental agricultural research center in Ottawa, investigated this bias against creatures who, for whatever reason, don’t make the charisma cut. He found that although relying on charismatic animals to raise public awareness and funds for their conservation was effective and useful, there was limited evidence that aid for these marquee creatures was trickling down to the less attractive ones. Ultimately, he wrote, “the world’s biodiversity is being beautified by selective conservation of attractive species, while the plight of the overwhelming majority of species is receiving limited attention.”
Little has changed since Small wrote his article. The criteria we use to judge an animal’s value is still, overwhelmingly, based on “human values,” he tells me. “In some cases, they are logical values — doesn’t matter how ugly something is, if it’s edible and useful or if it perhaps serves some absolutely essential function,” he explained. “But for most people, emotional criteria are the ones that count and it’s probably not that different from consumerism in general, the kind of things that we buy.”
This preference for cute, cuddly, useful, or beautiful doesn’t just dominate the general public’s perception of worthiness in animals, scientists, too, and the organizations that fund them, are guilty of a charisma bias. Consider the wasp. Most people hate wasps: They ruin picnics, they sting, they just seem mean. We can’t really see the point of the wasp, especially in comparison to their buzzy, Instagrammable relative, the bee. And the available research reflects that bias. Wasps, in reality, are just as useful — if not more useful — as pollinators than bees; they act as population control for other insects who eat crops we also eat; and like bees and other insects, they are also critically threatened by climate change and habitat destruction. But as of 2018, only 2.4 percent of the research papers on pollinators since 1980 were about wasps. The rest —97.6 percent — were about bees.
There are, of course, evolutionary reasons for our dislike of certain creatures. A 2019 study found that spiders tend to elicit the most fear and disgust in humans; snakes inspire more fear than disgust, tapeworms and maggots inspire more disgust than fear. These findings, researchers wrote, are in line with the theory that we have evolved to fear and be disgusted by animals that could have harmed us in our deep past.
But though there may be some good reasons for why we’re uncomfortable around snakes and spiders, modern culture and education have a lot more to do with our feelings about the animals around us than these supposedly hard-wired opinions. For one thing, we dislike many more animals than just the ones who might hurt us. The aye-aye is a nocturnal lemur native to Madagascar who mostly preys on wood-boring insects. It also sports huge ears and eyes, preternaturally long fingers, and, though harmless, pointy teeth that never stop growing; the local people consider the aye-aye a sign of bad luck and, up until recent protection laws were enacted, killed it on sight. Unsurprisingly, it is endangered.
Our attitudes toward the animals around us are by no means fixed. PR campaigns on behalf of the ugly, the scary, the potentially dangerous, and the invasive can work. And they need to work, not just for the animals themselves, but for all of us. The most important reason to save the ugly animals isn’t the animals themselves, it’s that they are vital to the preservation of whole ecosystems, and to the resources that we humans depend on to survive.
“An awful lot of the living world is not necessarily admirable by human considerations, but the reason why we should respect nature in general and all living things lies in ecosystem services. The world has evolved in certain ways. . . . It’s a very complex machinery that is self-perpetuating,” said Small. “If for our own welfare, if for no other moral reason, we ought to respect that self-sustaining machine that is the world ecosystem. . . . We don’t necessarily have to like every component of it, but we have to respect it for our own perpetuation.” Not only do we need to respect it, but we also need to actively work for it. Both Watt and Small point out that funding conservation is important, but voting for representatives who support it is, too. “These are also political issues; people need to vote,” said Watt.
EFFORTS TO EDUCATE humans about animals they might naturally dislike do work. In June 2019, James McWilliams, a historian and writer who lives in Texas, wrote a piece for Outside Magazine about a small community in upstate New York that has learned to love its timber rattlesnakes. Timber rattlesnakes could be among the nation’s most dangerous snakes — they’ve got long fangs dripping with a potent venom, and they’re not small — but they tend to be very docile and unlikely to attack. Even so, for years, people who found the snakes on their property were likely to kill them.
That all changed when William Brown came to town. Brown, a now retired Skidmore College herpetologist, has made studying the rattlers his life’s work. He demonstrated to residents that they needn’t be afraid of these mellow creatures, that the ecology of the area was healthier with them in it, and that timber rattlers reduce the rodent population, which could in turn control the tick population and curb Lyme disease. In response, the community stopped killing the snakes.
“They have a healthy respect for these animals; it’s not like they’re running out and hugging these snakes, they just have no inclination to kill,” McWilliams told me. Even when people found the snakes in their homes, they went to great lengths to gently remove the animals with snake tongs. This reflected a shift in their perception about not only the snakes, but nature and their place within it. “They did not see this as an invasion,” McWilliams said. “We’re looking at an exceptional community, but these campers, as they called themselves, were not necessarily drawing distinctions between their space and the wilderness. They had this remarkably integrated view.”
This situation is somewhat unique: A charismatic educator made up for the slightly less charismatic creature; the community itself was one that was already interested in living with and closer to nature; and the snake, despite being venomous, is on the friendlier end of the snake spectrum. But McWilliams is hopeful that education and shifting attitudes toward all living creatures is chipping away at these supposedly innate dislikes. He told me that after his Outside piece came out, he received an e-mail from a man in Pennsylvania who, for the last five years, has happily played host to a visiting timber rattler every summer. The snake, the man says, sleeps on his porch. “There’s some hope maybe that you don’t need a Bill Brown to show up and say, ‘This is how you should think,’ ” said McWilliams. “I think just some people just intuitively understand.”
For those who don’t intuitively get it, there’s help. The Ugly Animals Preservation Society, for example, uses a touring stand-up comedy show to highlight the plight of animals like the blobfish, which Watt describes as an “undersea couch potato.” “Conservation is depressing; a comedy act was the only way I could get people to listen about endangered species for two hours without wanting to kill themselves,” said Watt, adding that talking about ugly, weird animals is a way to get people re-invested in conservation. “I think it’s also important to talk about new stories; you can get fatigued, and we’re at a place where we can’t afford to be.”
And that is really the point. We know that if we are not now living through the sixth mass extinction, we soon will be. We are losing species — plants, insects, ocean life, ugly animals and cute ones — at an incredible rate. To manage this — and we might still be able to — we need to learn to live with and respect all animals that fill in the cracks of our existence. Beauty, charm, and commercial usefulness cannot be the sole measures of necessity in an ecosystem in which each part depends upon the other. We need rattlesnakes to keep rodent populations under control, even if they sometimes wind up in our garages. We need cockroaches, whose ability to digest decaying organic matter and excrete nitrogen does a lot of necessary work for our soil. We need wasps as much as we need bees. We even need (some) mosquitoes, because despite the fact that they are utter bastards, fish feed on their larvae and we quite like fish. We need them all, for reasons we haven’t even fathomed yet.
“When a species dies, it’s like a library burns down; you lose that information,” said Watt. “That stuff matters.”
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.