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Move over, pandas: ugly species find fans on the web

September 20, 2013

They’re weird, wild, and they’re popping up all over the web. From softshell turtles and the proboscis monkey to blobfish, biodiversity flaunts its ugly side.

Not your average cuddly mascot - a Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox) at Lake Woodruff. © Andrea Westmoreland, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not your average cuddly mascot – a Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox) at Lake Woodruff. © Andrea Westmoreland. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

It’s no secret that a photogenic face is a valuable commodity in the conservation world. The classic example is the panda, conservation’s poster child; taxonomic bias in favor of such “charismatic” species bedevils media coverage, research, and funding. But a new chorus of voices champions the ugly, the unloved, and the outright bizarre in the realm of biodiversity, and freshwater species are among the favorites.

Take the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, whose recent YouTube campaign for a mascot has crowned the blobfish as the world’s unofficial ugliest animal. Biologist and TV presenter Simon Watt, the project’s founder, says that the idea for the society was born when he was asked about his favorite species. “I would end up lecturing about how myopic we are, that we only like the cute and cuddly,” says Watt. When friends suggested he start a society, he decided to set it up as a comedy night: “It’s more fun and less paperwork.”

Since then, the Ugly Animal Preservation Society has toured the UK; at each performance, six scientist-comedians present their contender for the regional mascot and the audience votes. From there, it was a natural next step to take the vote worldwide via YouTube. Teaming up with the National Science and Engineering Competition, the society created a series of campaign videos on YouTube, which have snagged over 100,000 views.

Although freshwater scientists find beauty in diatoms, caddisflies and myriad lifeforms beneath the water’s surface, many freshwater species hardly class as lookers.

The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), one of the top five contenders for world's ugliest animal. Author: Stan Shebs, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), one of the top five contenders for world’s ugliest animal. Author: Stan Shebs. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two of UAPS’ top five, the axolotl and scrotum frog, are freshwater animals, and a tour of our own cabinet of curiosities reveals such aesthetically challenged species as the hairy frog, the sea lamprey, and the Goliath tiger fish.

But YouTube and blogs aren’t the only places where the not-so-charismatic are finding their way into the spotlight. Mara Grunbaum, author of the Tumblr WTF, Evolution? also focuses on nature’s more curious creations. Featuring snappy commentary and hilarious, sometimes gruesome imagery, Grunbaum’s posts poke fun at the bizarre twists some species have taken on their adaptive journeys, with freshwater examples like softshell turtles (“Look, evolution, everyone has trouble staying motivated sometimes”) and the necrophilic frog Rhinella proboscidea. While her Tumblr mainly aims to entertain, links to further information allow the curious to dig deeper. The project has gone viral on the internet, with plans for a book underway. Grunbaum, who started the Tumblr to amuse fellow science journalists, says, “It just took off, a lot more than I expected or planned for.”

Why are these strange species so fascinating? Grunbaum says part of the lure is in discovering the unexpected, knowing something “completely crazy” exists out there. For Watt, drawing attention to lesser-known species is both an urgent need and an opportunity to engage a new audience. With more species going extinct all the time, he says, conservation needs to broaden its outlook. “The kind of person who’s going to be interested in the panda is already interested in the panda. We’ve been drilling the same vein for a hundred years now.”

From YouTube videos and blogs to Twitter and the image-focused Tumblr, the Internet’s media arsenal allows these quirky biological treasures to rise to fame, fast. But the big question is whether interest translates into action. Watt says that he’s already seeing impacts from the UAPS campaigns – he’s heard from US schoolchildren writing rap songs about ugly animals as well as newly inspired PhD students.

More of the yuck factor than the cute factor - a sea lamprey up close. Not your average cuddly mascot - a Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox) at Lake Woodruff. © US Fish and Wildlife Service. Source: Wikimedia Commons

More yuck factor than cute factor? A sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) up close. © US Fish and Wildlife Service. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps, though, the greatest appeal of the blobfish is that it gives us reason to laugh. “If you are interested in conservation, you are basically condemning yourself to be depressed,” says Watt. Will celebrating the humor in these species help energize conservation? According to Grunbaum, part of the appeal is in being able to relate, knowing that not every animal out there is a graceful, perfect product of adaptation. She says, “We’ve all had awkward, awkward times in our lives.”

If that’s the case, perhaps promoting the weird side of biodiversity can work especially well for freshwater conservation. It’s rare to see freshwater species winning points for beauty, but we can showcase the wealth of freshwater species that are bizarre enough to pique the public’s interest. What do you think? Post a comment and propose your candidates for the ugliest freshwater species!

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