Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Saving The Not So Cute

The NY Times had an article yesterday that talked about the human trait to be drawn to, and to try to protect the "cute things" of the world. Like pandas, penguins and little puppy dogs. The story even goes so far as to opine that we're now even buying "cute" things like a Prius or Mini-Cooper instead of those not-so-cute SUV's. (I think gas mileage might have a little more to that than the cute factor.)
"Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.
Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.
The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession.
The greater the number of cute cues that an animal or object happens to possess, or the more exaggerated the signals may be, the louder and more italicized are the squeals provoked.
Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to cosegregate with homeliness.
Observing that many Floridians have an enormous affection for the manatee, which looks like an overfertilized potato with a sock puppet's face, Roger L. Reep of the University of Florida said it shone by grace of contrast. "People live hectic lives, and they may be feeling overwhelmed, but then they watch this soft and slow-moving animal, this gentle giant, and they see it turn on its back to get its belly scratched," said Dr. Reep, author with Robert K. Bonde of "The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation."
"That's very endearing," said Dr. Reep. "So even though a manatee is 3 times your size and 20 times your weight, you want to get into the water beside it."

I'll buy that we have a tendency to be attracted to the cute. Which gives a biological edge to those species that meet our instinctive cute-bias.
So you have to admire efforts to preserve the "non-cute" as well. In Florida, one effort involves preserving what little is left of the Florida Scrub, a non-cute name if there ever was one.
"Scrub is the unglamorous name for the Florida ecosystem that's similar to a desert. Sparsely populated by shrubs instead of trees with dry, sugary sand, it has one of the highest concentrations of endangered plant species in the United States. The ridge is the only home to 16 plants listed as endangered by the federal government, according to researchers at Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid.
"Our existence on the planet Earth is lessened every time we lose one of our fellow inhabitants," Steve Morrison of The Nature Conservancy said of the need to preserve the ridge's unique ecosystem.
Though less well-known than the Everglades, the Lake Wales Ridge scrub is the oldest ecosystem in Florida. Today only about 15 percent of the scrub ecosystem that once existed in Florida survives. Much of the land was turned into citrus groves and ranch land, and more recently, housing developments."

In the scrub lives non-cute things like rare plants and fungi... which are are a bit hard to get excited about.
Now if they can only find some indigenous scrub pandas.... the effort might really get going.


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