Cute and Endangered: How pop-culture’s portrayal of “charismatic” animals may harm their chances of survival

Cute and Endangered: How pop-culture’s portrayal of “charismatic” animals may harm their chances of survival

Animals such as lions, pandas, elephants and polar bears are beloved by the public and appear virtually everywhere in our culture, from advertisements to children’s toys. Paradoxically, a new study published in PLOS Biology suggests that the popularity of these animals may ultimately be their downfall.

Many people are unaware that some of their favorite animals face the highest risks of extinction in the wild. In the new study, an international research team led by Franck Courchamp of Paris-Sud University suggests that seeing virtual animals in the media skews the public’s perception of how threatened these species are. Thus, despite their popularity, these beloved species lack the public support for conservation efforts that is necessary to save them.

The researchers used online surveys, questionnaires, zoo websites and animated movies to determine the most “charismatic” animal species. Tigers, lions, and elephants took the lead as the most beloved animals, all of which are highly threatened species that have experienced significant population declines in recent years. The study found that, while the public adores these species, 95 percent of study participants were unaware that these animals face high risks of extinction.

The researchers hypothesize that seeing virtual representations of animals in pop culture and in the media leads people to believe they are more numerous than they actually are. For example, when a car commercial features a cheetah, it may contribute to the false belief that cheetahs are healthy in the wild and not in need of conservation.

One possible solution, the authors suggest, is for companies that use images of threatened species in their advertisements to promote the protection of these animals by contributing to wildlife conservation efforts.

Research Article: Courchamp F, Jaric I, Albert C, Meinard Y, Ripple WJ, Chapron G (2018) The paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals. PLoS Biol 16(4): e2003997.

Image Credit: Alexas_Fotos, Pixabay CC0


Sofia joined PLOS Biology as a Publications Assistant and Press Representative after graduating from UCL with a MSc in Human Evolution and Primate Behavior. She is eager to read and write about PLOS Biology publications, especially if those articles involve monkeys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *