These Animals Are So Ugly That Scientists Don’t Care About Them

Analysis of 331 species in Australia reveals that scientists only study cute animals—and ignore the ugly ones

The Ghost Bat, poster child for Australia’s ugly animals — (Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM)
Mar 09, 2016 at 12:42 PM ET

Ugly animals have it rough. We’re more likely to eat them or let them go extinct, and less likely to adopt them from animal shelters. Now, a new study in Mammal Review suggests scientists seldom study the most homely rodent and bat species in Australia. The findings may spell disaster for Stellaluna and her ilk—especially if conservation biologists neglect ugly, vulnerable species.

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Science has already explained why we love adorable animals and hate the ugly ones, and even why we have a strange desire to bite cute things. But this study is the first to delve into the question of whether scientists—champions of ugly model organisms like fruit flies and nematodes—are vulnerable to mere mortal prejudices against animals that don’t look enough like baby hedgehogs.

The answer appears to be a resounding yes, at least according to a recent analysis of how often scientists study each of the estimated 331 species of Australian land mammals. After scouring the Murdoch University Web of Science, which collates international animal science research published in journals, books and conferences, researchers found that bats and rodents—often considered “ugly” animals—seldom appear in the scientific literature, aside from their use as test subjects for medical experiments that ensure drug or cosmetics safety. On their own merits, these animals are almost never studied. This is especially alarming because bats and rodents make up roughly 45 percent of the 331 species investigated, and quite a few bat and rodent species in Australia are already endangered or threatened. From the paper:

Arguably, they are the least charismatic of Australian mammals, and their small size and cryptic behaviour can make rodents and bats difficult to study. However, their conservation status is often decided based on scarce or non-existent data, their geographical ranges are scarcely mapped, and for many species we have insufficient information about their biology to be able to identify potential threats to their persistence.

It isn’t terribly surprising that aspiring biologists are more attracted to koalas and kangaroos than whatever the heck this is, but it’s still disturbing that we’re studying charismatic species more often than the less fortunate ones. Conservation biology relies heavily on scientific data, and fewer studies on any species translates to fewer resources for ensuring its long-term survival.

“I’d like to think that we aren’t completely driven by charismatic species but funding tends to be directed towards them,” Bill Bateman, ecologist at Curtin University in Australia and coauthor on the study, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “For the ugly animals, the small bats and rodents, it’s very difficult for people to understand how important they are.”