The Biology of LOLcats

I’ve been hard on you this month, regular readers. Every post in October has been a long-stemmed essay on either ecology or the history of European scientific exploration in the 19th century. So today, I’m going to reward you with something stupid and cute.

When it comes to conservation, all the attention goes to the Big Cats: the lions, the tigers, the jaguars, the cheetahs, the cougars. The zoologically initiated might also pay attention to the medium-sized cats: the lynxes, the bobcats, the ocelots. The way they’re promoted, you’d get the impression that our housecats are simply miniaturized lions; that after Mr. Fluffers, it’s pumas all the way up. But in fact, Felidae is a remarkably diverse family which includes many small wild cats, mostly unknown to the general public. Though, in our era of coddled, infantilized house pets, it’s a complete mystery why.

The Sand Cat inhabits the hottest deserts on Earth: the Sahara, the Arabian desert, and the deserts of Iran and Pakistan. It is the feline equivalent of the Fennec Fox: huge ears for cooling the blood and detecting insects and snakes burrowing under the sand, and broad, furry paws to avoid sinking. In fact, the sand cat’s furry footpads not only act as “sand-shoes” and keep the cat from burning the soles of its feet — they make it possible for the cat to cross the dunes without leaving tracks. And like most desert predators, they obtain the water they need almost entirely from the blood of their prey, making this little cutie literally “blood-thirsty.”

Further south, on the savannah of South Africa and Namibia, lives the world’s smallest wild cat, the Black-footed Cat. The most ornery housecat you know cannot compare to this pugnacious little predator: notoriously antisocial, infamously courageous. The San bushmen say that a black-footed cat can take down a giraffe — an obvious exaggeration, but it does willingly hunt animals larger than itself, such as hares. Like the Sand Cat, the Black-footed cat isn’t much a climber, but is an eager burrower. And a ruthless killer.

South America may boast the greatest diversity and number of small cats. The smallest of all lives only in the Andes Mountains of Chile and western Argentina, where the cold and mist miniaturize everything; a dollhouse ecosystem. In this biological Lilliput, the Pudu, the world’s smallest deer, is stalked by the world’s most darling leopard, the shoebox-sized Kodkod. I have never before wanted to dress a leopard up in a bonnet and push it around in a stroller.

Now, if you didn’t, at any point in this post, catch your breath and go “awwww!,” you are a heartless monster. As a species we are built to reflexively reward cuteness. Lately I’ve been pondering the fact that the most popular animal blog gets a mere 11,000 hits a day (and most of us far, far fewer), while I Can Has Cheezburger rakes in a quarter-million. I could rail against the subliterate, stupefying anti-science of American culture, I suppose. But the fact is, there’s a pretty good reason.

A New York Times article from 2006 called “The Cute Factor” details a scientific team’s search for the things that make us go “aww.” Unsurprisingly, the answer is “anything that resembles a human baby.” More specifically: A round body, preferably wrinkled or fuzzy, and a round head with proportionately large, forward-facing eyes and a small, flat nose. In other words: pandas, koalas, and Dom Deluise. Whenever you see something pwecious, you get a jolt of endorphins to the same pleasure center responsible for the awesomeness of sex and cocaine. So that aunt you have with all the kitten calendars and Precious Moments dolls is secretly a nymphomaniac. Japan is a country of gutter junkies mainlining Hello Kitty.

If we didn’t receive a chemical Scooby Snack every time we wanted to hug it and kiss it and love it forever, we wouldn’t. Literally, we’d walk away from our own infants. A 2005 study found, both hilariously and horrifyingly, that mothers pay far less attention to ugly babies — infants with asymmetrical or irregular facial features — than they do “cute” babies. In this Canadian experiment carried out at a supermarket, “ugly” babies were strapped into their shopping carts only 4% of the time, as opposed to 13% for “cute” ones; homely toddlers were allowed to wander ten feet farther from their mothers than comely ones; and the buck-toothed, pug-nosed tykes were generally allowed to engage in far more dangerous activity (such as standing up in the carts) because their mothers had their eyes on them less. This parental negligence is backed up by a recent study that showed that women will turn away from pictures of flawed babies 2.5 times faster and more frequently than men. And an Israeli study cited in the article found that 70% of abused or abandoned children had at least one purely cosmetic defect. So if you’ve got the kind of face that “only a mother can love,” I hate to break it to you, but she doesn’t.

What does this have to do with small felids? Well, humans aren’t the only animals hard-wired to protect and nurture “cute” animals. An animal with neotenic features may have a greater chance of survival. Though there’s no record of the kitten-like Sand Cat getting out of a scrap with a larger Desert Cat because of its cuteness, there is evidence that some animals do use “cuteness” as a defense; it’s why your dog whines like a puppy when you smack it with a phone book. I wouldn’t be surprised if the world’s small cats retain “kitten” features for a similar reason. [pure conjecture, citation needed].

The other reason I bring up the plague of LOLcats is that it’s a matter of conservation. People are more likely to give money to save the baby-faced panda than the witch-faced aye-aye. These LOLcats of the world have a special name: “charismatic megafauna.” Our bias towards “cute” animals also happens to be the same instinct that keeps us from letting our offspring wander into highway traffic. We tend to think of Earth as a mother, but when it comes to conservation, it might be more appropriate to think of it as a baby. A cute baby. As for all those “ugly” animals, they should probably do what the rest of us do for good PR: use a cockatoo for a user icon.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

3 responses to “The Biology of LOLcats

  • Tatyana Brown

    I bet the black-footed cat’s adorableness functions similarly to the way lots of female XXX Haiku competitors create an advantage for ourselves: It’s the element of surprise.

    You see an innocent-looking, femme lady, and you don’t expect RAGING FILTH to come streaming out of her mouth. When it does, you’re double shocked. Similarly, as a larger animal looking at a cute little sand cat, I can’t imagine it being anything buy harmless and sweet, so I get close enough to let it bite my face off.

    It’s less that I have the urge to protect it, and more that I ignore my need to protect myself. That’s my interpretation of the advantages of being a cute predator, anyhow.

  • Wonder Dave

    The Aye-aye is an adorable small ugly thing. Also this: http://smalluglythings.tumblr.com/

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