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Donors were more likely to pay to conserve this large and colorful imaginary beast, compared with its less vibrant cousins.

Rory McCann

Would you pay to save this creature? Fake beasties reveal why some animals get conservation bucks

The critter above isn’t real—no doubt disappointing Dr. Seuss fans everywhere. But it is the winner of a new competition, which used drawings of imaginary animals to deduce which real ones have the power to bring in the big conservation bucks. The upshot: Although it doesn’t hurt to be cute, it’s not the only thing that matters.

Researchers already know people tend to support animals they find adorable. That’s why it’s easier to raise money to save pandas than bats. But no one knows exactly which features—both the physical and the nonphysical kind—motivate donors.

“Donations are really key to a lot of institutions,” from zoos to nonprofits, says Diogo Veríssimo, a conservation biologist with the nonprofit San Diego Zoo Global, who was not involved in the study. “Without them, many of the largest conservation organizations would struggle to survive.”

So Sarah Papworth, a conservation biologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, partnered with artist Rory McCann to design a menagerie of hundreds of fantastical beasts. Their quest: to find out which of these animals people were willing to support. Using imaginary animals without any backstory forced people to focus only on aesthetics.

Smaller and less colorful imaginary animals such as this were considered less attractive.

Rory McCann

The duo started with three distinct body shapes—one looked buglike, for example, whereas another had a head of striped hair similar to a Troll doll. The two then varied the size, color, eye position, and furriness of their fake faunae.

To understand which features people find most appealing, Papworth asked hundreds of past conservation donors to rank her imaginary species for attractiveness, taking note of what they did (or didn’t) like. Then, she used a smaller subset of only the most and least popular animals to ask a similar but distinct question: Which creatures would people pay to conserve?

Imaginary animals that were larger, more colorful, or dominated by cooler tones such as blues and purples were most likely to solicit donations, the team reported recently in Conservation Letters. On average, participants were 37% more likely to donate to animals with at least one such feature; they were particularly drawn to more colorful species.

Potential donors commented that this animal’s large nose made it look mean.

Rory McCann

To be sure their findings weren’t limited to imaginary beasties, the team then gave 50 cents to each person to donate to real animal charities. Charities raising funds for tigers, the most popular choice, received six times the donations of charities for species such as sharks and bats, supporting most of Papworth’s conclusions.

The results might explain why animals like tigers and elephants—which fit most or all of Papworth’s criteria—tend to solicit the most donations, whereas animals such as sharks, bats, and turtles split far less of the proverbial pot. Another study at the Paris Zoological Park similarly found that large, multicolored species such as giraffes and jaguars raised 46 times the funds of the less popular vultures and tarantulas.

Still, the formula isn’t perfect. It doesn’t account for the impact popular culture can have in sparking interest for “uglier” species. A recent study in Poland found that proboscis monkeys—once labeled the world’s ugliest primate for its bizarrely long nose—received a surge in donations through crowdfunding after starring in popular memes poking fun at their appearance. That’s a promising sign for conservationists working to protect the less charming denizens of the animal world. “They might just need extra help to get peoples’ attention,” Papworth says.