Tag Archives: Cute

These adorable tiny pygmy possums are still alive after the Australian bushfires

The devastating Australian bushfires of 2019-2020 harmed up to 3 billion animals, burning almost half the country in the process. Many species, including the pygmy possum, were feared extinct. Now, for the first time since the fires, one possum has been found, raising hopes that the species may yet survive.

A little pygmy possum, found on Kangaroo Island, amid fears they had all perished in a bushfire . Photograph: Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.

I’m not crying, you’re crying

It’s hard to overstate just how devastating the Australian bushfires were. We won’t even try to do that. But as the ashes settle on the passed bushfire season, some good news is emerging.

The pygmy possum, one of the smallest possums in the world, was feared extinct, but recently, the conservation group Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife found the little pygmy during their recent conservation efforts on Kangaroo Island.

Measuring just 10 cm (4 in) and weighing about 7 grams (around 0.01 lbs), this adorable critter is a survivor. It’s “the first documented record of the species surviving post-fire,” fauna ecologist Pat Hodgens told the Guardian. The fire burned down 88% of their predicted habitat range, so they’re extremely vulnerable, but at the very least, there is hope.

When you look like this, you must be protected at all costs.

There have only been 113 formal records of the species on the island, ecologist Pat Hodgens told My Modern Met, and studying these cute munchkins is difficult due to their size. However, Hodgens told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the ecologists are trying “to do everything we can to protect them to ensure that they hang around during this pretty critical time.”

The pygmy possums are not out of the woods by any chance. They’re still possibly compromised as a species, not just because their habitat was destroyed, but because this also opens the way for invasive predators to enter the scene — something which is not lacking in Australia.

Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife surveyed 20 different sites on the island, finding a handful of other species, including brush-tailed possums, tammar wallabies, a Bribons toadlet, and southern brown bandicoots.

It’s not clear what state the environment is in, and pygmy possums are just one of the species that have been devastated by the bushfires. Researchers are hard at work assessing the scale of the damage and what conservation measures would be most effective.

Even if the species does recover, it will likely take decades before things return to the way they were. Even then, there’s no guarantee that an upcoming bushfire season won’t undo all the progress, causing even more damage.

Researchers expect the bushfire season to get even worse as a result of climate change. While climate change itself does not cause fires, it creates suitable conditions for them by drying the leaves and the soil.

There’s actually a neurological basis for the urge to pinch extremely cute babies or puppies — it’s called ‘cute aggression’

If you’ve ever come across a cute puppy or baby and felt the urge to squeeze or pinch them (but in such a way as to not cause harm) you’re certainly not alone. But isn’t it odd that something cute would elicit this reaction instead of more benign tokens of affection? Like most things, this phenomenon even has a name — it’s called ‘cute aggression’, and scientists now say that they’ve found the neurological basis for it. According to the researchers, we sometimes get overwhelmed by so much cuteness that “cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down.’”

Credit: Pixabay.

Katherine Stavropoulos is an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside. She first heard about cute aggression after a team of Yale University psychologists released research related to the phenomenon in 2015. This study found that people were more inclined to squeeze, crush, or even bite creatures they found cute, and this effect was far more prevalent in response to baby animals versus adult animals.

Stavropoulos wondered what neural processes underlie this behavior — if there was any in the first place. So, she and colleagues enlisted 54 participants aged 18 to 40 and repeated the Yale experiment. This time, the participants were fitted with caps that measured their brain’s electrical activity while they looked at four sets of photographs, each comprised of 32 photos. The four sets featured: cute (enhanced) babies, less cute (non-enhanced) babies, cute (baby) animals, and less cute (adult) animals.

After viewing each set of photos, the participants were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 how much they agreed with certain statements. For instance, the volunteers had to rate how overwhelmed they felt after viewing certain photos (“I can’t handle it!” and “I can’t stand it!”) and whether they felt compelled to touch the animal portrayed in the media (“I want to hold it!” and “I want to protect it!”).

Overall, the participants reported more feelings of cute aggression and caretaking toward cute baby animals than toward cute adult animals. There didn’t seem to be any significant difference in emotion and behavior between enhanced and non-enhanced photos.

The electrophysiology readings suggest that cute aggression was linked to the brain’s reward system and emotion system, the authors reported in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“There was an especially strong correlation between ratings of cute aggression experienced toward cute animals and the reward response in the brain toward cute animals,” Stavropoulos said. “This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.”

“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” She added. “Our study seems to underscore the idea that cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down’ by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed.”

Stravopoulos claims that cute aggression may have arisen as an evolutionary adaptation in order to ensure people are able to properly take care of creatures they consider ‘cute’.

“For example, if you find yourself incapacitated by how cute a baby is — so much so that you simply can’t take care of it — that baby is going to starve,” Stavropoulos said. “Cute aggression may serve as a tempering mechanism that allows us to function and actually take care of something we might first perceive as overwhelmingly cute.”

Kitten.

What makes things cute?

What exactly is it that makes us go “d’awww” — and why?

Kitten.

Image credits Harald Lepisk.

A few days ago, as I was writing this post (it’s about puppies, you’ll love it), a few questions began to quicken somewhere in my brain. Why do we find certain things cute? Why can my brain perceive such a wide array of things and beings as ‘cute’? And why does it give me that warm, mushy feeling inside? Let’s find out, starting with:

The Why

Our best guess around the issue so far is that cuteness has a biological and evolutionary basis. That we find some things to be ‘cute’ because that ability gave us an evolutionary advantage. This theory was put forward around 1950 by Austrian zoologist, and one of the founders of ethology, Konrad Lorenz.

Lorenz’s view was that certain traits of an infant’s face trigger a nurturing instinct in adults — we perceive this as a feeling of ‘cuteness’. It nudged parents into being more involved in caring and providing for their children, making it more likely that they would grow healthily and reach adulthood. So, over time, those who could perceive the cuteness of their babies gained an evolutionary advantage over those who couldn’t. Team Cute was simply better at keeping their babies alive — so, in time, the genes that encoded this instinct and associated behavior gained the upper hand over other variants.

In other words, there are no cute things, only things you perceive as being cute so you’ll feed them.

This is what our current understanding of cuteness boils down to. Our brains have evolved to take certain elements associated with our younglings as cues for a nurturing instinct. We feel the push of that instinct in our desire to take a baby and pinch its cheeks. It makes us want to keep it warm and well fed. Finally, it keeps us from throwing the baby/ourselves to the bears after two straight weeks of being woken up in the middle of the night (this is very useful).

It also seems that the evolutionary advantage we talked about earlier did a lot to tilt the playing field. Humanity today seems to have a pretty homogenous view of what constitutes ‘cute’, suggesting that the cute-instinct imposed itself throughout all human populations. Even infants themselves seem to be more drawn to other cute infant faces compared to un-cute ones, a sign that recognition of cute is so important to the human race it got hard-wired into our brains.

Why, then, are so many other things cute?

Cuteslug.

Image via life.cookingpanda.com

Does this sea slug look cute to you? Let’s be honest — of course it does. But is that sea slug your kid?

I salute any sea slug who reads ZME Science, but I’ll wager that most of you answered with a resounding ‘no!’ to that last one. Which, given what we’ve seen so far, doesn’t really fit in. If babies are cute so parents miss how stressful they can be, why does that slug make me squeal in delight?

Well, it all cycles back to those cues our brains use for gauging cuteness. They’re actually pretty general elements, like different body shapes and ratios. This means that your brain will register many things as ‘cute’. One of the best people you can go to to learn about cuteness — and insight on how to abuse it — are designers, cartoonists, and other types of visual artists.

“Childlike characteristics make a baby sweet and bring us to build rapport. We find it dinky. That even works when we see things reminding us of a baby or just parts of it,” wrote Sascha Preuss in an Envato Tuts+ design course focusing on designing cute characters.

“That means these characteristics can be consciously transfused and applied, for example in the field of designing things and of course especially when it comes to character design.”

Some of the things the course points to as conducive to cuteness are:

  • A high head-to-body size ratio. For a baby, that’s roughly 1:4, while for adults it’s 1:8. “Cute characters need big and round heads,” it adds, and exaggerated features can help increase this effect.
  • The eyes and ears are placed lower in the skull, creating a large forehead. They’re spaced more widely apart than in an adult and are relatively big in proportion to the rest of the face. We tend to find things with eyes showing forward as cuter.
  • A soft, small, not-fully-developed nose.
  • Smaller mouths are cuter, as we subconsciously register bigger ones as being threatening or dangerous. It should also be closer to the eyes than in an adult face. “Some cute Japanese characters don’t have a mouth at all,” Preuss adds.
  • A generally-round and soft body. Limbs shouldn’t be too long, and the legs especially should be “short and plump”. Fingers, likewise, should be short and stout. Wobbling also helps. All of this feeds into a look of relaxed helplessness that just makes us want to pinch a (round) cheek.

There are more factors playing into how cute we perceive something to be, but these are the few central ones. We’ve evolved to respond to such cues because that’s how our babies look — but that sea slug shares a lot of these characteristics. So why aren’t our brains more disciplined? We don’t really know.

On a personal note, I’ve come to see that evolution very often makes ‘economic’ sense, for lack of a better word. This may explain why we have such a wide range of cute. Statistical hypothesis testing considers two types of errors: type I’s, and type II’s. A type I error is seeing something that’s not there. Type II is failing to see something that actually is there.

When your baby is involved, a type II error is, potentially, far more costly than a type I. It’s really, really bad for you and your genes if you fail to notice that your baby is cute and aren’t incentivized to care for it. Comparatively, finding a puppy cute isn’t very costly — at worst, you’ll have to contend with its mom, but you already passed on your genes, so it’s fine even if you get mauled.

In other words, people who would register many things as cute had a better chance of passing on their genes than people who would register too few, or none. So, finding things cute — even finding too many things cute — became a selective advantage.

What does it do to me?

MRI orbitofrontal cortex.

The orbitofrontal cortex, involved in processing pleasure and emotion.
Image credits Paul Wicks.

Cuteness seems to elicit a very powerful effect on the brain. We’ve talked about the physical cues that construct it, however, cuteness is not limited to visual stimuli. One study found that the other senses, such as “positive sounds and smells”, also help reinforce feelings of cuteness. Furthermore, something cute draws our attention like a magnet, ignites a flurry of activity in our brain, and alters our behavior — making us more compassionate.

A strong effect, right? Well, it makes sense — our infants, unlike those of other species, are completely dependent on adults. One of the jobs cuteness performs, then, is to make sure that the baby is put on the top of our brain’s priority list 24/7. This strong reaction is there by design, to make infants difficult to ignore.

Cuteness activates brain networks involved in processing emotion and pleasure and makes us more empathetic. That’s why looking at cute pictures of cats online makes us feel so good. It’s almost ridiculously effective at altering behavior: research has shown that people prefer to look at cute baby faces over attractive adult faces; we’re more likely to adopt or gift toys to cute babies; we’re willing to expend effort just to look at cute babies. All of this, regardless of gender, even if we’re not parents ourselves.

It also triggers more long-lasting effects in the brain. The first thing our pound of gray matter does upon seeing something cute is to activate the orbitofrontal cortex — involved in emotion and pleasure processing. This activation, however, also prompts secondary processes throughout other brain networks. This pattern of activity has been associated with caregiving, bonding, and nurturing behavior.

Seeing something cute, in other words, starts priming your brain for parenthood.

Unlikely cooperation: Coyote and badger spotted hunting together

Recent sightings in the area of the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center have revealed an unusual partnership: that between a badger and a coyote, successfully hunting together.

Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Kimberly Fraser, USFWS

Inter-species collaboration is uncommon in the animal world, and even when it does show up, it’s usually between prey animals, not predators. But this is not the first time a badger and a coyote have been observed working together. The two complement each other very well, with the coyote chasing down the prey if it runs away, and the badger digging after it if it goes into a hole.

When they try to hunt alone, they can be either outran or out-burrowed, but together, they are faster and more efficient than any prey. However, these partnerships are rare in colder months. Usually, they happen only during the summer, because in the winter the badger simply digs and finds hibernating animals — it has no need for the fast coyote. In fact, this is quite an open relationship between them, because the two have also been spotted hunting individually sometimes.

Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Kimberly Fraser, USFWS

A study published in 1992 also concluded that not only is the tandem more efficient when working together, but it also spends less energy and doesn’t have to move as much in the search of prey.

“Complementary morphological adaptations and predatory strategies, interspecific tolerance, and behavioral flexibility allowed them to form temporary hunting associations,” the study writes.

Well, each animal is a remarkable predator in its own right, but together — they’re almost unstoppable.

The American pika is being killed off by climate change

The American pika, “one of the cutest animals” in the country, is feeling the heat as a hotter, drier summers threaten its habitat.

I brought you a gift! Don’t kill us please.
Image credits NPS Climate Change / Flickr.

Whole populations of the tiny rabbit-like mammal known as the American pika are vanishing from the animal’s historic range in the mountainous areas of the western USA. The main culprit seems to be loss of habitat powered by climate change, according to findings by the US Geological Survey. After observing the animal from 2012 to 2025, the Survey found that the pika’s range is shrinking in southern Utah, north-east California, and in most of Nevada, parts of Utah, Oregon, Idaho and California — almost the entire Great Basin.

The study provides more conclusive evidence to the effect of global warming on the tiny mammal, building on earlier research which found that climate change was at least partly contributing to the animal’s decline. It did not measure how many total American pika still exist, but studied several areas where it has historically roamed eating grass, weeds and wildflowers. While the pika overall seems to be struggling, the study found that it’s thriving in a few places — most notably the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

But don’t rest easy just yet. The American pika (all species of pika are extremely cute) has completely disappeared from the Zion National Park in Utah, despite sightings as recently as 2011. In the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument, the animal was nowhere to be seen on three-quarters of their historical range according to Erik Beever, a research ecologist with the USGS and lead author of the study. In north-eastern California, the pika was only found in 11 of the 29 sites of confirmed habitat. In the Great Basin, which stretches from Utah’s Wasatch mountains in the east to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains in the west, the population is down about 44% compared to historical records.

“The longer we go along, the evidence continues to suggest that climate is the single strongest factor,” said Beever.

Essentially, the pika are dying of exposure in their own burrows, and it’s all because of us.

The pika are tailored to live in a very specific conditions, and are very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. The animals make their home on mountain slopes, known as talus, where they search for open spaces in the ground to burrow. But the talus fields are becoming a much hotter, drier place in summer and a very harsh place in winter, with less snowfall to insulate the critter from cold.

The historical range of the American Pika. The animal resides in cool, moist microhabitats on high peaks or watercourses. Distribution data from IUCN Red List.
Image credits Wikimedia user Chermundy.

The study is the latest argument in the long-running efforts of wildlife advocacy groups, which have been trying to get the pika on the endangered species list for a few years now. In 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service rejected one such request, citing that not all populations are declining. The latest petition was made this April by a high school student in New York state. This situation isn’t singular — ZME Science reported the other day that the average waiting time for a species to make the Endangered Species list is 12 years, or six times more than the designated timeline. 

A preliminary ruling is due this September, but the new study won’t be taken into account because the agency’s staff only takes into consideration information submitted with the petition, said Serena Baker, a USFWS spokeswoman. Hopefully, the ruling will be in favor of the pika. But, should the USFWS turn it down, the study should help future petitions to have the animal declared endangered, as the study confirms that climate change is putting the animal at real risk, says endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona Noah Greenwald. Without such a ruling, future generations of mountain enthusiasts may not have the chance to see these lovable critters on their hikes, he adds.

“It’s gotta be one of the cutest animals in North America. It’s like a cross between a bunny rabbit and prairie dog,” Greenwald said. “Part of what makes our world interesting is the diversity of animals and plants that you can see when you go to different species.”

President Barack Obama is a big supporter of the issue. During his Yosemite National Park speech in June this year, he talked about the damage climate change is inflicting on the country’s national parks. He said the pika was being forced further up-slope at Yosemite to escape the heat.

“It’s not that they’ve just moved, they are gone all together,” Beever said.