Remember the high school popularity contests? Often, our athletic and genetically gifted classmates have attracted the most attention: the school captain, the captain of the soccer team, the prom queen. But popularity contests aren’t just for school. And in the world of conservation, it can be a matter of survival for “winners” and “losers”.
If we asked you to list every animal species you can think of, chances are that list would be full of mammals and birds, with very few reptiles, fish, amphibians and invertebrates. So why do we focus so much on some species and so little on others?
Our recent study challenges assumptions that people simply find mammals and birds much more appealing than other species. When these overlooked species were posted on Instagram by wildlife organizations and researchers, there weren’t big differences in the tastes they appealed to.
This has implications for the species we focus on to gain public support for conservation. A more complete picture of the wildlife around us would help reduce glaring imbalances in conservation outcomes.
Survival of the cutest and fluffiest
For years, we’ve assumed humans were more interested in “cute and fluffy” species – often known as “charismatic megafauna” – and it’s the animals that are has been shown to us on TV, in movies and in advertising. There is evidence to support this preference. People will often choose to donate to mammals and birds on other species, and mammals and birds are mentioned more on social media.
However, mammals and birds make up less than 10% of all animals on Earth. With the media we consume, we simply don’t get an accurate picture of the wildlife world around us.
Where it gets worrisome is in the struggle for species survival. Our planet is in a extinction crisisspecies disappearing at an extraordinary rate.
However, our focus on mammals and birds means that cute, fluffy animals receive more research attention and funding. The conservation results for these species are better than for reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Tellingly, 94% of all threatened species on the IUCN Red List are reptiles, fish, amphibians and invertebrates.
Do people really prefer charismatic megafauna?
Our study suggests that this issue may be more complex than first thought. Many Australian conservation organizations use social media platforms, such as Instagram, to share their work and connect communities with wildlife. But in the busy, constantly updated world of Instagram feeds, which images are most effective at grabbing someone’s attention?
We set out to look at which Australian wildlife species were posted most often on Instagram and which had the highest levels of engagement. Based on the belief that people will engage more with charismatic megafauna, we expected mammals and birds to be shown more frequently and drive higher engagement than “creepy crawlies” such as amphibians and the insects.
We analyzed 670 wildlife images posted to Instagram by wildlife organizations and research group accounts in 2020 and 2021. For each image, we noted the species posted in the image. As a measure of engagement, we recorded the number of “likes” the image received in proportion to the number of followers from each organization.
What did the study find?
Our results were surprising and give hope for the future of underrepresented wildlife.
Although the majority of wildlife images posted on Instagram by these conservation organizations were of mammals and birds (73.7% to be precise), our analysis of image engagement revealed a surprising and promising trend. Mammals were, indeed, more engaging than other species, but only by a tiny amount. We found that birds, reptiles, invertebrates, amphibians and fish were all equally attractive to Instagram users.
Are we ready to sympathize with strange bugs?
Maybe it’s time to give our scary critters more media stardom. The greater the diversity of animals we see, the more likely we are to support their conservation.
The Repeated message theory suggests that when we are repeatedly exposed to something, we are more likely to become familiar with, engage with, and support it. To research showed that when we work to promote underrepresented species, we can improve their chances of receiving a public donation by 26%.
Our findings suggest that media and conservation organizations can promote endangered species across all walks of life – from lizards to insects and from fish to frogs – without compromising viewer engagement. It will increase our knowledge of the amazing diversity of animals with which we share this planet. This, in turn, will lead to underrepresented species receiving more of the conservation support they need to survive.
Zoos Victoria is already leading the way. The endangered native golden-rayed blue butterfly features in the new Wildlife Bags campaign to conserve its natural habitat.
Perhaps we tend to prefer mammals and birds because we see them more, and not just because they look a certain way. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.