Wednesday, 8 December 2010

How do zoos choose?

The standardized pictures of 17 macaw species from PLoSOne 
Which of these macaws do you find the most attractive?

There's an interesting paper in PLoSOne entitled "Being Attractive Brings Advantages" in which a team of scientists from the Czech Republic and Germany provide some rather nice evidence that supports what we all suspect: that "the size of zoo populations is not only determined by conservation needs, but also by the perceived beauty of individual parrot species assessed by human observers."

If you're like the repsondents to their survey, then you'll have a preference for larger body size, longer tail and blue, orange or yellow colouration (preferred in that order). Green parrots don't do quite so well. "Visual inspection of the most prominent losers (e.g., Psittrichas fulgidus, Nestor notabilis, N. meridionalis, Cacatua tenuirostris, Enicognathus leptorhynchus) suggests that they usually possess an exaggerated, hawk-like beak (curved and sharp), which might be perceived by humans as weaponry," speculate the authors. Or they're just not that interesting to look at.

The authors have then looked for a correlation between the preference rank and the world captive population of each species. They found one.

Of course, this isn't really that surprising. Zoos came into existence as entertainment and still have to fulfill this function. But it's the balance between entertainment and conservation that's at stake here. What is a slightly more surprising finding is that neither the IUCN Red List category nor the taxonomic uniqueness of each species had any obvious relationship to the size of the captive population.

For the authors, this supports the hypothesis "the fate of the species may be considerably affected by its core attractiveness to humans." Pandas anyone?

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