Bias for the Beautiful

Edie discusses our bias towards charismatic species in conservation and the consequences of this for future biodiversity.

Charismatic Species in Conservation and Consequences for Future Biodiversity.

Photography by Henry Zhao

We are undoubtedly living in a period of history defined by our presence and activities on Earth. As both a direct and indirect result of our influence on the planet, the background extinction rate for species is 1000 times higher than the natural rate1. Given this fact, there is a clear need for us to conserve as many species as possible to curb biodiversity loss and resulting degradation to ecosystems. We have made positive efforts towards this goal, but there seems to be a bias among conservation initiatives towards aesthetically-pleasing, “attractive” species. Charisma is playing far more of a role in conservation than it should be, but what are the potential problems with this, and how does such a bias for the beautiful arise?

Increasingly, conservationists are having to consider ways to garner sympathy and funding from the public with respect to threatened or endangered species. Conservation initiatives are often only as successful as the amount of funding they receive, so there is pressure to effectively communicate the need for conservation and inspire public interest in the species in question. However, it seems that the most successful of these conservation campaigns are those that centre around so-called “charismatic species” for conservation. Features such as fur, large eyes and a docile nature are all disproportionately valued by humans, evidenced by the features of species we deem to be “charismatic”. Think elephants, meerkats, and domestic pets. Undoubtedly, the success of charismatic species campaigns has been significant and valuable; China announced in 2021 that pandas were no longer endangered, following a range of initiatives to raise money for their conservation, and substantial media attention. Given their clear aesthetic appeal to the public, WWF even changed its logo to an image of a panda in 1961, posing the species as an emblem of conservation2. It is not that these campaigns are unimportant, the issue comes from the relative disinterest in calls to conserve “uglier” species.

Photography by Henry Zhao

This bias has been empirically proven in a recent study by Shaw et al., where the authors edited images of different species to enhance their aesthetic appeal. They then presented these images to the public in a hypothetical donation experiment to see which species they were more likely to donate money towards. The edited images received larger hypothetical donations compared to the unedited images, suggesting that people did have a bias for more “aesthetic” looking species. However, this bias was less pronounced and even reversed with increasing ecological expertise, suggesting that those who were familiar with the species in question appreciated the unedited images more3. This suggests that with greater education about “less beautiful” species, people can learn not to judge a book by its cover and appreciate the conservation value of a species on a deeper level, grounded in science.

Simon Watt is one of the predominant figures fighting in the ugly animal corner. He is a biologist and founder of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society4, aiming to educate the public about lesser-known species that may not win prizes for beauty, but are in desperate need of conservation. The society’s webpage refers to the fact that invertebrates, despite comprising around 97% of animal life on Earth, are only covered in 11% of conservation literature5. Conversely, mammals make up less than 10% of known vertebrate species but are represented in 40% of leading conservation literature6. It is these kinds of biases that society needs to redress; otherwise, we stand to lose biodiversity before we even come to learn, or care about it.

Species diversity and functional diversity convey slightly different meanings. Whilst species diversity refers to the absolute number of species present in an ecosystem, functional diversity represents the range of services that are provided by these species, like nutrient cycling or photosynthesis. Ecologists have long debated which form of diversity is relatively more important for the maintenance of stable ecosystems. The tentative answer to this question is that both are necessary, as functional diversity is naturally conferred by maintaining as many species as possible in a community. This is because no species is functionally redundant – each will contribute to ecosystem services whether at a specific time, or in a particular microhabitat, or alongside a specific partner species. This is what makes ecosystems so complex, and their dynamics so difficult to predict7.

Photography by Henry Zhao

With this in mind, it becomes clear why we need to conserve all species, even the “ugly”, if we are to maintain these components of stability in the wake of climate change, land use changes and pollution. To disregard this evidence is to compromise the integrity of ecosystems. By conserving species purely based on aesthetics, how can we guarantee that we are also conserving important ecosystem services, life-saving drugs, long-standing symbioses, and cultural symbols? Besides these uses, we should have a greater motivation to value nature for nature’s sake, not scrutinise species from a biased, anthropocentric perspective8. Who are we to decide what gets to live and what doesn’t, and even worse, which species are “beautiful” enough for the privilege of survival in a landscape of change that we imposed?

Overall, it is clear we are still plagued by a bias for the beautiful, which pervades conservation and current science literature, making a case of salvation only for the aesthetically pleasing. This will have substantial repercussions for future biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services, altering human relations with nature. We must learn to be as objective as possible when evaluating species for conservation campaigns, seeing them for their ecological value rather than their looks and marketability. To commodify species for conservation is to contradict the very purpose of conservation itself, and to contribute yet another way in which humans are negatively modifying biodiversity. So, the next time you see a campaign for pandas or elephants on TV, why not donate to an “ugly” species instead? 


  1. Klebl, C., Luo, Y., Poh-Jie Tan, N., Teo Ping Ern, J., & Bastian, B. (2021). Beauty of the Beast: Beauty as an important dimension in the moral standing of animals. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 75.
  1. Jones, B. 2023 VOX article:
  1. Shaw, M., Dunn, M., Crowley, S., Owen, N., & Veríssimo, D. (2024). Using photo editing to understand the impact of species aesthetics on support for conservation. People and Nature, 00, 1–16.
  1. Simon Watt webpage:
  1. Ugly Animal Preservation Society webpage:
  1. J. Alan Clark Robert M. May, Taxonomic Bias in Conservation Research. Science 297,191-192(2002). DOI:10.1126/science.297.5579.191b
  1. Correia AM, Lopes LF. 2023; Revisiting Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning through the Lens of Complex Adaptive Systems. Diversity 15(8):895.
  1. Washington, H.; Piccolo, J.; Gomez-Baggethun, E.; Kopnina, H.; Alberro, H. 2021 The Trouble with Anthropocentric Hubris, with Examples from Conservation. Conservation, 1, 285-298.