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"The Beauty of Ugly"

Nature

by Justin Lindsay

Ugly, like its comelier opposite, is in the eye of the beholder. Though my wife was drawn to me by my incredible looks, a female proboscis monkey would have passed me by because of my diminutive nose, or a marabou stork because of my lack of inflatable waddles. There's no accounting for taste.

What intrigues me most about the nature of 'ugly' in the animal kingdom is that each and every occurrence of it serves a very specific purpose. As "The Beauty of Ugly" mentions, a baby has large eyes, a small face, and a big head--all for the express purpose of triggering those parental instincts in us big people. This same hard-wired prejudice is also directed against the animal world; when I walk into a pet store with my daughters, guess which section of the shop they run to: the hermit crabs or the puppies, the millipedes or the parakeets, the iguanas or the teddy bear hamsters?

This same bias towards cute and pretty animals exists in our entertainment as well. There are dozens of quality sites devoted to animals so adorable and sweet that you leave your computer needing an insulin shot. And when was the last time you saw anything with scales advertising a fabric softener, or a carrion-eater serving as the mascot of a cereal brand?

But what about the beauty-challenged creatures of the world? What's a naked mole-rat gotta do to get some love?

Well, that's where this Nature episode comes in. Specials like this, along with the increasing number of websites devoted to the ugly oddities among animals (shameless plug for my own site), have taken up the worthy task of giving the homely critters of the world their due.

What impresses me most about alligator snapping turtles, star-nosed moles, fisherman bats, and lappet-faced vultures is that the very thing which makes them repulsive to the human eye is what enables them to thrive where lesser (dare I say, more attractive...) animals might not have. The naked, fleshy head of the turkey vulture, along with its propensity for urinating on its own feet, is the very thing that allows it to do what it needs to do: fill the incredibly important role of clean-up crew. The enormous, bony, wart-ornamented head of the warthog is the very thing that allows it to withstand everything from a leopard's attack to the aggressions of its fellows--not everything inhabiting the African savannah can be a golden lion or a sleek gazelle.

Ugly often means functionality: bulbous noses and red rear ends and swollen neck folds to attract mates, oversized teeth and fleshy tentacles and hairless skin to aid in digging, articulated stingers and compound eyes and bowl-shaped heads to assist in hunting, giantized armor plates and bioluminescent bacteria colonies and photophores to evade would-be predators.

And ugly so often means extraordinary. The naked mole-rat queen is the only animal that can extend her spine. Elephant seals are some of the deepest divers on the planet (one need only follow that pinniped to the deepest depths to find the most outrageous assortment of ugliness on the planet). The nubian vulture has a wingspan of nine feet and is able to rip through sinew and bone where other animals fail.

Yes, we have some work ahead of us. It's going to take some doing to persuade my daughters into believing that the adorable hamster is more likely to bite than that emperor scorpion is to sting, or that the California condor is every bit as impressive as the golden eagle. But with enough education, exposure, and conservation efforts--and a subtle recalibration of what we consider beautiful--we just might pull it off.

Comments

Ugly animals are obviously interesting enough for most people to look and stare at, but not that many of us take the time to study or even ponder the usefulness of ugliness! Uglyoverload.com is a masterpiece of ugly I would never have imagined! Justin's 'accounting for taste' (Justin is an accountant, you see) has me wanting to spend more time looking into the ugliness that so gloriously surrounds us. Thank you, Justin!

Love the blog and love this write-up. Congrats to PBS for sponsoring this. Justin, you bring a rare wit and insight into this overlooked aspect of the animal kingdom.

That's a very thought provoking and intriguing post. While I definitely knew the reasoning behind the vultures bald head (didn't know about the urinating on it's feet thing), I hadn't thought that "Being Ugly" had served a purpose. :-)
Great Post!!!

What a great article! As an animal lover, I have been a fan of Justin's blog for a couple of years now and I always enjoy his intelligent, witty, funny and whimsical style of writing. He gives these "ugly" and overlooked creatures almost human personalities. So clever! PBS is showing its good taste and discernment in discovering Justin's talent. Well done!

Check out NATURE's ugliest animal photo competition. To learn more go to http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/flickr.html

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