Research in the zoo: Beauty goes hand in hand with danger

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  17. 12. 2018

In the last issue of the journal The Science of Nature, we published a paper summarizing the results of our research on how people evaluate the beauty of the mammals in Prague Zoo. Beauty here is related solely to appearance, with no consideration given to movement or any other activities of a given species or the presence of other individuals, including babies. Think of it like choosing a beauty queen from just a photograph, without seeing the swimsuit walk or any of the other disciplines involved in contests like these.

Before I go any further, try writing down five or ten mammals in our zoo that you consider the most beautiful. Not the most popular or interesting – the most beautiful. I believe that when you compare your list with the results of our research, you will be in for a surprise.

The purpose of this research, conducted by Dr. Daniel Frynta of the Faculty of Natural Science at Charles University was, among other things, to provide clues on how to build balanced collections of mammals in zoos, how to choose flagship species for conservation projects and how to promote mammals evaluated as unattractive. As other research has shown, the protection of animals regarded as beautiful is supported more readily by the public than the protection of those considered unappealing.

And now the results: The top ten most beautiful mammals are invariably beasts of prey. Eight of them are felines, their dominance only challenged by the Red Panda and the wolf. The top of the chart is occupied by the Amur Leopard, the Sumatran and Siberian Tigers, the Margay and the Clouded Leopard. Below the top ten are strikingly coloured hoofed mammals – giraffes and zebras. On the other hand, our zoo’s most popular animals, the Lowland Gorilla and the Indian Elephant, ended up relatively far down on the losing side. And when it comes to the ten ugliest mammals, they surprisingly include two species of macaques, along with the domestic pig and cow. Mechow’s Mole Rat is at the very bottom, in 145th place.

It is thus evident that animals perceived as the most beautiful are mainly large species with distinct fur patterns, be it spots, stripes or more complex designs. Similarity to humans or real or alleged intelligence plays no major role. The cast of the top ten, however, points at yet another aspect: the mammals we perceive as beautiful are simultaneously those that are dangerous. There may well be a reason for that. Large felines used to pose a lethal threat to our ancestors, which is why they continue to arouse our emotions and attract our attention.