Researchers have charted the “popular pandas” of the animal world — how many of them can you guess?

The tiger was found to be the most popular animal. Tigers are large, majestic predators, and they’re also endangered.

It should be no surprise to anyone that we care about some animals more than others, and that some species get far more attention than others. We see it on the news, we read about it in magazines, and most likely, we also feel that way deep down inside. Few people, if any, would equate an endangered tiger to a similarly threatened shrimp, for instance.

This is more than just a popularity contest — for conservationists, knowing which animals are more popular can make a big difference in devising strategies and campaigns to protect all animals, not just the popular ones. With this in mind, Céline Albert, who works at CNRS and Université Paris-Sud, set out to see which animals are most popular among Westerners.

“First, we asked respondents of two separate surveys to identify the 10 animal species that they considered to be the most charismatic and associate them with one to six traits: Rare, Endangered, Beautiful, Cute, Impressive, and Dangerous,” they write in the study, which is open for everyone to read.

They then gathered data from the zoos in the world’s largest cities, as well as on the film posters of all Disney and Pixar films. They worked on the assumption that in all cases, the animals on the front page of the website would be chosen for popularity reasons.

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They found that most of the popular animals are large and exotic. Terrestrial mammals are much more popular than marine creatures, presumably because they are more familiar to the average Joe. The most popular species were cherished because they was regarded as beautiful, impressive, or endangered, although no distinguishing traits seemed to pop out.

The relative score, i.e., the score for the four survey sources relative to the first ranked (tiger), shows a relatively homogeneous distribution. Image credits: Celine Albert / PLoS.

Results were fairly homogenous and showed, as expected, that a few groups of creatures dominate the popularity rankings. For instance, there are four big cats in the group, all of them in the top 7 most popular species. There were also three bears and only three marine creatures.

All species were described by all six traits, with the notable exception of the great white shark which, unsurprisingly, was never selected as Cute.

Researchers explain:

“To this Western public, most of the listed species are exotic. Wolf and brown bear are the obvious exceptions, but given their reintroduction into most parts of Western Europe after decades of absence, it is possible that they are also perceived to be exotic species. They are also large predators, which is a recurrent feature in the list, with dangerousness seemingly exerting an appeal for many respondents.”

Experience has shown that conservation programs work best under the umbrella of a flagship species. Quite often, these projects aim to protect a number of different species but emphasize the most popular ones — since these projects are used to increase public awareness about conservation issues and/or promote fundraising, it makes a lot of sense to do so.

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Knowing which ones are the most popular could be particularly helpful when designing such projects. However, researchers warn that all the study respondents were from Western cultures and were English or French speakers, so they may not be representative of the entire global population.

In time, one can only hope that the empathy and concern of humans will also expand to other creatures.

Journal Reference: Céline Albert, Gloria M. Luque, Franck Courchamp. “The twenty most charismatic species.” https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199149

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