Turning 'Ugly' Animals Into Memes Could Be the Key To Their Conservation

A proboscis monkey sitting in a fence

The current threat to the Earth’s biodiversity is no laughing matter, but it may be that raising a smile might help some vulnerable species dogged by unfortunate looks or dark reputations.

Explore: See photos of the ugliest animals (and learn how to protect them)

Studies of conservation strategies for two endangered primates — the proboscis monkey from Borneo and the aye aye lemur native to Madagascar — show the surprisingly powerful influence of public attitudes towards less photogenic creatures at risk of extinction.

September 1st marks International Primate Day, an opportunity to take a look at how conservationists can best raise the profiles of less-loved primates.

The proboscis monkey, Nasalis larvatus, regularly features in public votes of the world’s ugliest animals. Both males and females have conspicuous noses, but sexual dimorphism (differences in shape, size or color between the sexes) also results in dominant males with pot bellies, piggy eyes and a vivid red penis contrasting against a black scrotum: none of which induce impressions of beauty, majesty or cuteness — the usual criteria for public affection.

A closeup of a proboscis monkey
A closeup of a male proboscis monkey, Nasalis larvatus. Wikimedia

The power of memes

A recent study conducted in Poland aimed to illuminate ways to inspire people’s concern about protecting species, including the proboscis monkey, that aren’t so aesthetically pleasing.

Researchers explored the possibility of raising public interest in conserving this curiously ugly monkey through spreading amusing internet memes — images of the monkey with text linking its appearance to Polish jokes and cultural references — within social media and in conservation marketing.

The team then monitored the interest in proboscis monkeys versus conservation superstars such as koalas and gorillas by analyzing public donations made to related conservation campaigns.

As a result of the campaign, media interest in the proboscis monkey – virtually negligible in Poland prior to 2016 — increased significantly, equaling coverage for traditional conservation celebrity species.

Explore: See the best wholesome memes

The amusing memes, focusing on the funny side of the monkey’s looks, attracted more positive coverage that inspired several amateur crowdfunding campaigns raising money for the species’ protection in Borneo: which received donations from 218 donors in total.

Overall, a creature previously all but unknown to the Polish public became a focus of important attention that ultimately contributed to its protection by helping to pay for the conservation of its habitat.

These findings suggest that conservationists shouldn’t shy away from using memes to create interest in and raise money for the more overlooked endangered members of the animal kingdom.

Changing myths

The aye aye lemur, Daubentonia madagascariensis, provides another example of the power of public attitudes to influence conservation efforts.

A closeup of an aye aye lemur on a tree branch
The world’s largest nocturnal primate, the aye aye is renowned for its unusual appearance. Oregon State University/Flickr

Where the proboscis monkey is corpulent and flabby, the nocturnal aye aye is spindly, bug-eyed and unkempt. Its two front incisors stick out much like the teeth of Murnau’s Nosferatu, complemented by an unusually elongated, skeletal central finger used to unearth grubs from trees (but also to curse unsuspecting humans, according to Malagasy legend).

Even its name, “aye aye”, is possibly a linguistic trick to avoid calling the creature directly by instead imitating its cry.

Yet despite these creatures’ damning reputation as harbingers of catastrophe to humans, it is in fact humans who threaten the aye aye’s continued existence. Aye aye numbers have been in sharp decline since the 1980s, thanks to hunting, deforestation of their habitat for construction and culturally driven persecution due to their “evil” reputation.

Although it was thought that negative perceptions of aye ayes were fairly universal in Madagascar, a recent study by academics from Madagascar and Germany revealed unexpectedly varied attitudes among Magalasy villagers, with certain areas such as the Makira region of northeastern Madagascar even being potential strongholds for aye aye conservation due to the local prevalence of positive attitudes towards aye ayes.

In places where negative attitudes dominated, the villagers themselves often could not identify aye ayes in pictures. The animal remained an unfamiliar, imaginary threat.

An aye aye lemur hung up to a tree branch
Aye ayes are feared in many local areas for their mythical ability to lay curses on humans. Wikimedia

In fact, interviewees’ regard for the aye aye seemed to vary with direct knowledge of aye aye behavior. Although negative views were more frequent than positive, the latter were associated with understanding about the aye aye’s usefulness for controlling pests on vital crops.

Firsthand knowledge and experience of aye ayes was associated with positive views, pointing to the importance of sharing knowledge within conservation strategy as well as the possibility of shifting seemingly entrenched beliefs.

In time and with patience, farmers aware of the aye aye’s pest control powers might help generate vital local action in support of conservation by helping to craft new narratives centering the creature’s role in our ecosystems.

Understanding how and why people perceive certain animals as less appealing than others could be the key to expanding public conservation efforts successfully.

This story by Mike Jeffries, from the Northumbria University, was originally published by The Conversation.

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October 1, 2022 3:00 PM
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