Last year on the Zoological Society of London's Edge website, which raises funds for animals on the verge of extinction, visitors could choose to donate cash to any of 10 individual species. Coming top in this endangered beauty pageant was the loris – a small, endearing primate with oversized eyes, like a character straight out of a Disney film. Bottom of the pile was the poor solenodon – a scruffy, ancient mammal which looks like a cut and shut of the animal kingdom.
This month the Zoological Society of London, prompted by news that 85 per cent of amphibians threatened with extinction were receiving almost no conservation, released a top 10 of cosmetically challenged salamanders and frogs. The list aimed to raise awareness of strange but unique creatures often overlooked in favour of the cute and the cuddly. "Traditionally, species have gotten noticed because we're innately attracted to them, like pandas, elephants and gorillas, which means we're more likely to get involved in their conservation," says Dr Jonathan Baillie, a scientist at ZSL. The good news is that ugly is now set to be seriously fashionable in the animal kingdom. "I think we're now in an era where people want to be exposed to things that are different, new and often extreme," Baillie says. There's an appetite for [ugly] creatures."
The ZSL's aim is simple: to get would-be conservationists to overlook the fact that certain creatures have been tapped with the ugly stick and love them instead for their weird and wonderful attributes. "The transformation from ugly to cute can be amazing," says Baillie. "The film Shrek has done that beautifully, where you start with a creature that people think is repellent and by the end of the film they're in love. And that's the process we're going through with some species – we're Shrek-ing them."
The ten creatures on the list are as follows:
The solenodon can be traced back to more than 70 million. Time and evolution, however, have done little to improve its looks. There are two types, the Hispaniolan and the Cuban, with the latter being the uglier owing to a pronounced rat-like appearance and scruffy, patchy fur. "The Cuban solenodon looks like a giant dishevelled shrew," says Baillie. "We associate animals that are symmetrical and well-groomed as beautiful. So if something looks dishevelled we might think it has an association with disease."
The solenodon, which feasts on insects and can inject poisonous saliva into its prey, has been considered extinct at various times in the past century and is now classified as endangered. "In terms of ugly animals this one's a hero," says Baillie.
"I would put this in the unusual category. You're not repulsed when you look at it. You think more of Star Wars," says Baillie of the saiga antelope's distinctive swollen proboscis. The antelope's horns, which look like carrots, are highly prized in the medicinal trade. Hunters chase the antelopes in vehicles and either shoot them or run them over. "If they die when they are excited and the blood is pumping then they are worth more. In the past, poachers collected them in thousands," says Baillie.
Found in Kazakhstan, with a sub-population in Mongolia, the saiga antelope population has had an "extreme crash" due to poaching. Cold winters and dry summers in Mongolia have also affected the species – it has now dropped from more than one million to just 50,000 in 10 years and considered critically endangered.
Northern hairy-nosed Wombat
A big, heavy marsupial, the Northern hairy-nosed wombat is critically endangered, with not many more than 100 left, in one fenced-off colony in Queensland, Australia. The largest of all wombat species, it has lost its home to farming and has been threatened by introduced animals such as the dingo. "This wombat has a really blunt head and stocky features," says Baillie. "It looks strange because people won't be familiar with seeing one before. It's got a great name, though."
At six centimetres long, it's one of the biggest invertebrates in the UK, and has a velvety head and clawed feet like a mole. The mole cricket spends most of its time underground, coming out at night. They were usually discovered when ploughing fields but the use of fertilisers and pesticides has seen the population plummet dramatically. Buglife reckons the UK population may now be extinct. "It hasn't been confirmed in the wild recently – there have been a few possible records. But the UK contingent has probably gone."
The other members of the list are the Aye-Aye, Giant Salamander, Myers' Surinam Toad, Long-beaked echidna, Phoenix Fly and the Glutinous snail