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Public is less likely to support conservation for “ugly” reef fishes

Humans often engage with natural biodiversity because it is beautiful, be this on the species level or in terms of ecosystems or habitats. It seems that people value this beauty and are more likely to support conservation efforts when the subject has an intrinsic aesthetic value, irrespective of its ecological role or conservation needs. This does not bode well for the “ugly” animals of this world, despite the fact that they may be crucial in maintaining functional ecosystems or that they may be highly endangered and threatened with extinction. 

In a new study led by Nicolas Mouquet from the University of Montpellier, this approach by the public was found to apply to reef fishes. The study reveals that reef fish which are considered to be the most ugly also tend to be the species most in need of conservation support. 

The research involved an online survey that was completed by 13,000 members of the public. The respondents were asked to evaluate the aesthetic attractiveness of the ray-finned reef fishes in 481 photographs, and this data was used to train a convolutional neural network. The researchers then used this machine learning to generate predictions for an additional 4,400 photographs that featured 2,417 of the most encountered reef fish species. 

When the experts combined the public’s ratings with the neural network’s predictions, they found that bright, colorful fish species with rounder bodies tended to be rated as the most beautiful. In addition, the most attractive species tended to be closely related in phylogenetic terms, and to have broadly similar ecological roles in the ecosystem. They also tended to be categorized as species of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, and therefore less in need of conservation support.

In contrast, less attractive or unattractive species were more likely to be listed on the IUCN Red List as “Threatened.” This was despite the fact that they had more diverse roles in ecosystem functioning and were from diverse evolutionary backgrounds. Unattractive species were also of greater commercial interest, whereas aesthetic value was not correlated with a species’ importance for subsistence fisheries.

Biases in research and conservation efforts have been documented for many taxa. For example, vertebrates are more commonly the subjects of scientific articles in conservation journals and of records in biodiversity data sets. More than half of the billions of records reported in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) are for birds, despite the fact that birds represent only one percent of all the species on the GBIF. Humans prefer the groups and species that are aesthetically appealing.

We have innate preferences for shape and color that are probably a consequence of the way the human brain processes colors and patterns, the authors say, but mismatches between aesthetic value, ecological function, and extinction vulnerability may mean that the species most in need of public support are the least likely to receive it. The ecological and evolutionary distinctiveness of unattractive fishes makes them important for the functioning of the whole reef, and their loss could have a disproportionate impact on these high-biodiversity ecosystems.

While it is easy to understand that certain species have a higher aesthetic value to people, this phenomenon is also applicable to communities and ecosystems. Less research has been done on understanding the value that people attribute to communities and ecosystems and the impact that this has on conservation efforts. However, measuring a species’ aesthetic value helps understand and predict the willingness of the public to protect that species, or even the reasons behind the success or failure of conservation efforts. 

“Our study provides, for the first time, the aesthetic value of 2,417 reef fish species. We found that less beautiful fishes are the most ecologically and evolutionary distinct species and those recognized as threatened,” said Mouquet. “Our study highlights likely important mismatches between potential public support for conservation and the species most in need of this support.”

The study is published in the journal PLoS Biology.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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