Aesthetic Value Doesn’t Equal Conservation Value
Reef fishes serve a vital role in maintaining some of the world’s most important and threatened ecosystems. Yet many of these species are affected by climate change, ocean acidification, exploitation, and other human-caused threats. Conservation efforts are underway to protect many fish species, but there is often a mismatch between the threat facing a given species and the amount of resources allocated to protect them.
Conservation priorities are determined by humans, and, despite our best efforts, they can be influenced by irrational biases. One strong form of bias is aesthetic preference: how beautiful, or adorable, we think an animal is. While aesthetic preference clearly plays a role in shaping conservation priorities — for example, consider society’s fixation on large, charismatic megafauna — this connection has been understudied, largely due to difficulties in measuring something as subjective as beauty.
The authors of this study saw AI as a potential solution to this problem. They set out to train an algorithm to measure the aesthetic value of reef fishes and weighed the data against important conservation considerations, including IUCN threat status, ecological traits, and evolutionary history.
First, the researchers needed human-generated data to train the AI. A photographic survey was issued to over 13,000 human participants, where they were presented with a series of two different fish photos and asked to choose the more beautiful one. Participants consistently chose fishes with more colors, brighter colors, and rounder bodies compared to monochromatic fish with elongated bodies. The authors used the data to rank 481 fish photos from most, to least, aesthetically pleasing.
This information served as the learning dataset for the AI system. Once trained, the algorithm successfully assigned an aesthetic value to 2,417 different reef fish species. The AI-generated ranking followed the same logic as the human-generated one: the brighter, rounder, more colorful the fish, the higher the aesthetic value.
Armed with aesthetic scores of thousands of reef fish species, researchers then compared these values to other conservation data. In the case of evolutionary history, species with higher aesthetic value tended to have evolved more recently and were more closely related to one another. Meanwhile, species with lower aesthetic value were phylogenetically older and more diverse.
Researchers also used data on body size, diet, behavior, and habitat use to determine how unique each species’ traits were. They found that fishes ranked lower in terms of beauty tended to be more ecologically distinct, and higher-ranked fishes less so. Taken together, these results indicate that less attractive species tend to be older, more evolutionarily diverse, and more ecologically original than their more attractive counterparts.
Finally, researchers compared fishes’ aesthetic value to their conservation status and found an inverse relationship between beauty and extinction threat: more attractive fishes were significantly less likely to be threatened than less attractive fishes. This relationship points to a potential bias in reef fish conservation efforts, where more beautiful fishes may be given higher priority even if they don’t serve an ecologically important role.
While most people agree that the physical appearance of a human shouldn’t dictate their right to a happy, healthy life, we’ve yet to extend that same dignity to the rest of the animal kingdom. These biases shape who is included in our circle of concern, and the extent to which we are motivated to help them. When promoting fish conservation, advocates may want to remind people that the ocean is made up of tens of thousands of fish species, each one worthy of moral consideration. It’s especially important to emphasize the value of fishes who receive less attention, and less funding, because of their appearance.