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  • Why do we find some animals cute and others terrifying? In this story, we meet Sophie Fern who is exploring what we like and what we don’t about native species and what that might mean for conservation efforts.

    This is part of the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, meeting New Zealand women working at the intersection of people and nature. These stories are a feature for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

    Dunedin’s Sophie Fern is in the midst of her PhD research, investigating what people like about different native species and what they don’t. Originally trained in marine biology, she is a passionate conservation storyteller and a champion for our less-known native species. In her time working on nature documentaries, she saw the focus on charismatic megafauna like dolphins and penguins, so she decided to study what it was that attracted people to those ‘hero’ species and whether that could be applied to some of our less charismatic – but just as at risk – native species.

    “So few of us have seen kākāpō, for example, but we know so much about them because of all the media that is around them. And yes, they’re fabulous, and yes, there’s going to be media around them anyway because of how cool they are. But if we can tell stories about creatures that are less cool, or less obviously cool, we can start getting those positive stories around them and hopefully that’ll bring them into the spotlight as well.”

    Sophie is studying whether non-human charisma is involved in conservation. She has reviewed international research, which found that we prefer organisms we see as beautiful, have curves and bright colours, are large or cute (preferably both), have some connection with people or are culturally significant. Now, she’s testing whether New Zealanders show the same trends, and so far beauty, colour and cultural significance have been emerging as the top preferences. According to her results to date, our favourites are kea and pōhutukawa, and we are not so fond of fish.

    By learning more about the native species that people feel an affinity with and connection to, New Zealand conservationists may be able to identify and promote ‘flagship species’ – those that might become iconic in the same way that kiwi, kākāpō and kea already have. Sophie uses the example of the WWF panda – a charismatic animal that people recognise and support, knowing that their financial contributions are going toward much wider conservation goals rather than that one particular species.

    She hopes that her work will help scientists, conservationists and policy makers better connect the public with the conservation challenges facing Aotearoa.

    “We need people who know their stuff and are able to bring that expertise to the problems that we’re facing. We need experts to ask questions, like how we are monitoring this. What’s the best way to do this? What’s been tried? You’ve got to be able to talk to people who’ve got different ideas, different knowledges, and work together on conservation problems. And it’s got to be more than just you in your office. Absolutely got to be.”

    Related content

    Insects and fish are often forgotten when fighting for the protection of threatened species. Their lack of charisma means it can be hard to get people excited about their conservation status.

    The article Working as a scientist provides a brief overview of some of the many scientists featured on the Hub. Use it to discover some of the reasons people choose a science-related career and some of the things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.

    Sophie has three articles in the Connected series that we have featured on our site:

    • Animal X factor – use this to consider the role of ethics in science conservation.
    • Gardening in the living room – use this to introduce your students to plant needs and design considerations to ensure healthy food growth indoors.
    • Squawkzilla – discover why it took 10 years to correctly identify the remains of this ancient giant parrot.

    Useful links

    Use these Pinterest boards for more profiles of people working in science.

    Listen to this interview with Sophie Fern on RadioNZ about Are New Zealand's cute and cuddly native species being favoured over those less charimatic?

    Read about this study by UK scientist Sarah Papworth who partnered with an artist to create fake creatures to try to work out what animal features impact the choices of species that people like to support.


    This article was written by Anastasia Turnbull.

      Published 7 February 2020, Updated 5 May 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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