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Emojis Reveal Our Bias Toward Mammals

A new WWF campaign might highlight our trouble caring about "ugly" endangered species.
May 16, 2015, 12:00pm
Screengrab: WWF/Twitter

If all of the animal emojis suddenly disappeared from our phone keyboards, there would probably be mass outrage. So then why are we so cavalier when it comes to certain animal species that are disappearing from the planet?

Earlier this week, World Wildlife Fund international launched a new campaign called Endangered Emoji. WWF has identified 17 emoji animals and linked them to an endangered species, like the spider monkey and the bluefin tuna. Users that sign up to participate (by retweeting WWF or visiting its website) will receive a monthly tally of the number of "endangered emojis" they've tweeted, and the option to donate a suggested 0.10 Euros (about 11 cents) per emoji to help conserve these species.

But there's one small flaw with the new campaign: the large majority of the endangered species featured are mammals. Only five of the 17 emoji animals in the campaign are not mammals. This is partly because there are only so many animal emojis, and most of those (41 out of 64) are mammals, too. As I said, it's a small flaw, but it's one that highlights a larger problem when it comes to conservation, according to David Shiffman, a biology PhD candidate at the University of Miami and shark conservationist.

"The issue is a broader one than just emojis. It is easier to get people to care about endangered species if they're cute and cuddly," Shiffman told me over the phone. "But there are lots of species that are not cute and cuddly that are endangered."


Shiffman said it's an issue he's struggled with when trying to raise awareness about shark conservation and a problem other conservationists have cited in the past:

"Most of the world's species at risk of extinction are neither particularly attractive nor obviously useful, and consequently lack conservation support," researcher Ernie Small wrote in an article in Biodiversity in 2012, where he explored the topic and noted that only beautiful or useful creatures tend to attract the attention (and action) of the public. There's even a name for these "cute and cuddly" poster creatures: charismatic megafauna.

Shiffman said he doesn't have a problem with the WWF campaign—in fact he wholeheartedly supports it. The details of where the raised funds will go haven't been released, but it's unlikely the organization will focus on single species conservation. More likely, the funds will be pooled to support all of WWF's efforts (which include some of the less cute animals), whether people tweet a tiger cub or an elephant.

But Shiffman still felt like the campaign was a good chance to point out this gulf between the animals we choose to care about, and the animals we let slip away.

"There is so much more public interest, knowledge, and to some extent caring about the conservation status of cute species," Shiffman told me. "These species are no less important and in some cases they're more ecologically important or more threatened than the cute and cuddly species."