As humans exert ever-greater influence on the Earth, their preferences will play a substantial role in determining which other species survive. New research shows that, in some cases, those preferences could be governed by factors as subtle as small color highlights a creature displays.
In the case of penguins, mostly black-and-white flightless birds that live predominantly in the Southern Hemisphere, those most popular with humans appear to be the ones that display markings of warm colors such as red, orange or intense yellow, said David Stokes, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, Bothell.
He and his undergraduate students calculated the popularity of various species by studying photographs in four large-format photograph books about penguins. Decisions about how many and which photographs to use and how large to make them presumably were made by the books' editors based on their own preferences or on their beliefs of what would appeal to the book-buying public.
"Penguins are lucky because they are popular with people, especially right now. But that's not true of 99.9 percent of the species out there," Stokes said. "Even the penguin species I found to be among the least appealing to people are tourist attractions."
Tops on the list are the Emperors, featured in the film "March of the Penguins," and their close cousins the King penguins. Second are crested penguins, including Rockhoppers and Macaroni.
Species at the bottom of the list are Adelie, Yellow-eyed and Little Blue. Stokes was surprised by the relative lack of popularity of Adelie penguins because that species is probably the most familiar to the public.
There are 17 penguin species, and in the past some were hunted for food or boiled to extract their oil. Some species now struggle to survive climate change, changing food patterns and encounters with humans or human activity, such as oil drilling at sea.