The blobfish has just been unofficially voted the ‘World’s Ugliest Animal’, kicking off a unique conservation effort which proves that protecting endangered species need not be a morose affair, after all.
Giant panda Tian Tian was (and still is) choosing to be coy about whether or not she is pregnant. Tian Tian’s baby will be the British zoo’s first giant panda cub; so understandably, the nation is in a tizzy.
Meanwhile two communities in Belgium are at loggerheads over Xinhui and Haohao, a pair of giant panda cubs loaned to them by China. The Dutch-speakers of the country are not pleased with the decision to house them in a wildlife park in the French-speaking area.
Elsewhere, in the United States, a group of scientists discovered that panda poop has microbes that could make them an alternative source of biofuels.
It took me a little more than a year, but I finally realised I’ve reached a stage in my life as sub-editor. I am sick of Giant Pandas.
But they’re endangered so you can't argue with the fact that they can use the publicity. And it seems publicity is guaranteed when you’re cute as heck, photogenic, and have useful poop.
This is all well and good – there are after all only a few thousands of giant pandas left – but would we be giving giant pandas the same attention if they weren’t this adorable?
Simon Watt does not think so. Simon is a biologist, writer, science communicator and TV presenter, who is the brain behind the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society” (UAPS). To put it simply, Simon wants a fair world where endangered species are given the attention they need irrespective of whether you would want to cuddle them to sleep.
This is not the first time someone has tried to bring unattractive animals to the limelight. Noted naturalist Sir David Attenborough turned heads last year with his selection of ten animals that he would like to save from extinction. The ten animals which were then featured on a BBC show called “Attenborough’s Ark” did not feature the more popular species like the tiger and the giant panda. Instead, there was a type of long-lived salamander, a frog species where the males give birth out of their mouths, and an anteater-like creature called the sunda pangolin.
The UAPS is trying to spread the same kind of awareness, but using a totally different way to engage with the public – comedy. UAPS rounded up a bunch of comedians, got them to host stand-up shows themed on an endangered-but-ugly animal each, and then asked people to vote for the ‘World’s ugliest animal’. The National Science + Engineering Competition (NCES) partnered with them to make the campaign happen.
The winner will be the mascot of the UAPS, a symbol and a voice for a forgotten category of endangered species. Yesterday, the UAPS got its mascot – the blobfish. But feasting your eyes on this unconventional beauty will be a little more meaningful if you understand that this is not just an eye-grabbing exercise by Simon Watt. It’s a unique and serious effort to educate people that conservation isn’t just about cute animals, and depressing figures need not be the only way for conservationists to reach out to the public.
Simon (@Simondwatt on Twitter) was nice enough to answer some of my questions over email:
Do you really think that the cuteness of a species comes to play in conservation efforts?
SW: It really does. Our zoos are a good example. Much of what they do is excellent but they are still not perfect. A recent paper has shown that zoos do tend to prefer prettier species and that many of those animals deemed ugly don’t appear in zoos at all. In general the best conservation approaches are to look after habitats and then the species within that habitat tend to take care of themselves.
What happens once UAPS's mascot is chosen? What is the best case scenario for the winner?
SW: Our comedy show tours the country and so at each location they elect a different local mascot and means that each place feels a special affinity with their mascot. Furthermore it gives us reason and cause to discuss and talk about species that are often neglected.
In London, the mascot is the proboscis monkey, in Edinburgh, the gob-faced squid, in Cheltenham and Bristol, the three toed sloth, in Winchester, the Titicaca water frog and in Brighton it is the naked mole rat.
We have used the platform to create other educational resources such as YouTube videos, guides to building bat boxes and class room activities. Some of our gigs are used to raise money for conservation charities.
How difficult/easy was it to convince comedians to participate? Do all of them have science backgrounds like Dean Burnett?
SW: Our performers are either comedians who dabble in science or scientists who dabble in comedy. Everyone has their own take and can personalise their sets as much as they like. If they want a little help with any of the biology of the species, I help them as much as they need. We do have a core set of people who I know and trust and think are hilarious. I am lucky to work with them.
I am impressed and amazed by how many people want to help and we even have people e-mailing us ugly animal pictures and poetry and wanting to contribute.
When and how did the under-representation of ugly animals strike you?
SW: I spend my life trying to communicate the joys of science. I do this through a variety of means including lectures, theatre, radio and TV. I mentioned at the end of one of my talks how bored I was with how we seem to focus on the same species all the time and that most only seem to care about cute and fluffy animals. A member of the audience said I should set up a society and the idea of the comedy night struck me.
I haven't heard of a lot of examples where the environmental cause is championed using comedy. How effective has it been so far?
SW: From the start it had two aims. Firstly, I wanted to get people talking about species they might not come across or think of often. Animals that are not the ones that feature in most documentaries articles or zoos but that are still facing threats to their survival.
My second aim was to make it fun. Conservation can be so depressing, that it is easy to switch off. I wanted to make sure that everyone enjoyed our nights so that they would want to keep learning more.
It has been very popular and continues to grow. I have even created a solo show all about frogs as this is a group of animals in a particularly bad way at the moment.
What is an “ugly” animal, anyway?
SW: Each act is allowed to propose an animal using their own criteria. The only real rules are that their set must be 10min, that the animal must be endangered.
In many cases the comedians already know what species they want to talk about. For those that don’t I have a long list of what I think are particularly interesting and particularly ugly animals. As a biologist I can furnish them with as much biological knowledge as they need.
Some feel that their animal is actually quite cute and maligned by most. Others feel an affinity for the underdog while others even if they think that even if their species is not the most unattractive that it is a loser for some other reason.
For instance, sloths are not that hideous but they are so slow that they cannot even outrun the algae that grow on them.