The Science Behind What We Find Cute

By Erin Delmore

With more than 1,000 animals on 20 acres, the Turtle Back Zoo is packed with species that make us squeal, and it turns out, they have something in common.

“Big eyes, some pudginess, shuffling, or moving in some kind of awkward, loping, manner. Anything that falls over a lot we tend to find adorable,” said Nina Fefferman.

Case in point: This red panda with its bright eyes, small face and soft coat. Fefferman, an evolutionary biology professor at Rutgers, says those are all examples of “signaling” — what an animal’s look conveys to others.

“The ear position signals to us whether or not we think they’re happy or aggressive or alert or upset about something,” she said.

When we can read an animal’s expression, we feel more comfortable, which makes it a winning trait for cuteness. For example, think of a family dog.

“You can tell when a dog is happy; tail position, ear position, facial muscle position. It’s eliciting food, it’s eliciting love, it’s eliciting care. All of those things we’ve bred it to do that we find endearing,” Fefferman said.

Small mammals are a slam dunk for cuteness. However, Zoo Director Brint Spencer says cold-blooded animals get the short end of the stick.

“In the movies you don’t see the monsters looking warm and fuzzy,” he said. “The monsters look reptilian. They look like something we should be scared of.”

It’s the difference between a smooth slither and a goofy gait. Take the wallaby, for instance.

“They’re bouncy and they kind of look like animal pogo sticks and that looks adorable until one really starts taking off and you kind of go, ‘wow, suddenly that’s a little bit less cute than when it was just sitting there going, ‘I’m kind of an old grandmother with an adorable fuzzy face and tail,’” Fefferman said.

Our experts caution that ‘cute’ isn’t always ‘friendly.’

“They’re a beautiful cat, so people think they’re friendly, they’re cute, they’re fuzzy. When you see how quickly they can move and how strong they are  and we do physicals and you see how big their claws are, you realize that this is not a friendly animal,” said Spencer.

“A bear walking is kind of a lopey, adorable animal,” said Fefferman. “A bear running at you is an amazingly fast killing machine.”

When a group of hunters captured one a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t bring himself to shoot it, so the teddy bear was named in his honor. While cuteness is in the eye of the beholder, humans measure against their own young.

“They are pudgy, they are round, they are bad at sustaining their heads on their necks, they are bad at sitting upright and they are just roly poly big, adorable objects that smile at us when we make them happy and shriek to high heaven when we don’t,” Fefferman said.

Cuteness plays a role in conservation, too. “Charismatic megafauna” are popular animals that star in conservation efforts, but there are shortfalls.

“We may save pandas, but the rest of the bamboo forest can collapse around them, and we haven’t saved anything, really,” Spencer said.

It’s a mission the zoo takes to heart. Over the summer, it sponsored rescue efforts by a volunteer and a veterinarian, plus it offers conservation classes you can apply in your own backyard.

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