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Ugly animals need love too!

Illustration by: Joana Ho

What do a dolphin, a sea turtle, and panda bear have in common? They are considered flag species, meaning they are charismatic species that can draw public attention to a conservationist cause. This concept emerged in the 1980s as a way to ensure conservation of biodiversity. Since it is not possible to finance protection projects for all species of an area, we raise the status of a charismatic species as a means of supporting its overall ecosystem. When I was an intern for the Tamar Project, I was used to receive tourists at the Ubatuba base to talk about sea turtles. While teaching them about sea turtles, I ended up also teaching them about the fish that they consumed and the damages garbage and automobile use in spawning areas caused, etc. The main message always went through several other messages. Whenever we talk about the importance of preserving the flag species, we also talk about the importance of preserving the entire ecosystem.

Although it is an efficient concept (who does not think about the Panda Bear when thinking about WWF?), its application requires caution. By prioritizing flag species, you run the risk of not preserving those who really need to be preserved. It is important to remember that several species are threatened with extinction. Some scientists even argue that we are going through the sixth major extinction of the Earth (episodes in which large numbers of species go extinct in a short period of time).

According to scientists all prior mass extinctions were caused by natural catastrophes, such as the fall of a meteorite. However, WE (human beings) are causing the sixth extinction! Paradoxically, although WE are causing the sixth extinction, WE are also the ones that can prevent it from being more tragic.

So, it was in thinking about the protection of a group of endangered and "disadvantaged" animals that the biologist Simon Watt created the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society.” No, that is not a type, this idea was quite contrary to the use of traditional flag species. According to the creator, it is not fair that the panda gets all of the attention.

The innovative idea of Simon Watt did not stop with the creation of the society. To raise funds and save aesthetically unprivileged species, he and a group of artists ventured into the United Kingdom, performing shows and stand up comedy, in which each artist featured an ugly animal. At the end of each evening, people could vote on what should be the mascot of society.

Among some strong competition of the weirdest frogs, salamanders, snails and insects, the winning mascot was a fish, the Blobfish. Besides being ugly, this fish, scientifically called Psychrolutes marcidus, inhabits the deep waters (between 600 and 1200 meters deep) of South Australia, including Tasmania. They have no swim bladder, only the minimum number of bones needed for survival, and their body has a gelatinous consistency. But these characteristics all contribute to being able to live in their high-pressure environment, with the water around them as their main structural support.

But I confess that I found the vote somewhat unfair. Knowing that every 10 meters that we dive to find the Blobfish, the pressure increases by 1 atm. We would meet the ugly creature in an environment with more than 60 atm of pressure pushing down on us, and our organs would crush and we would probably look like paste (actually we would have died long before!). Meanwhile the Blobfish would look like an "ordinary" fish and not the gelatinous creature we thought so ugly while we analyzed it on the Earth’s surface, at only 1 atm.

Cover of the book written by Simon Watt with an image of the mascot of the "Society of Preservation of Ugly Animals," the Blobfish.

Another marine fish that competed as the ugliest animal was the European eel (scientific name: Anguilla anguilla). Although it is critically endangered and it looks more like a snake than a fish, I believe that this species should not even be in this competition because they are wonderful! The European eel is a euryhaline fish, which withstands great variation of salinity, and is catdromic, meaning it grows in rivers and spawns at sea. In addition, it has leptocephalus larvae, which look beautiful, last about 3 years, and reach up to 8 cm in length!

European eel: adult (left) and larva (right)

So, have I been able to convince you that the European eel and the Blobfish are not ugly, but that they do need our attention and protection?

In your opinion, which endangered animal is ugly and should be preserved?

About the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society” (Come in and laugh a lot watching the videos):

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