What Makes an Animal “Cute,” Anyway?

Sep 7, 2015

Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

By Caitlin Schrein

Scientists on social media are redefining “cute.” Prompted by two researchers at Virginia Tech, Anne Hillborn and Marcella Kelly, scientists have been posting photos of their most adorable research organisms to Twitter with the hashtag #CuteOff. Whether or not these critters qualify may be in the eye—or the research study—of the beholder.


Click the name of the source below to see the cutest photo gallery on the Internet

27 comments on “What Makes an Animal “Cute,” Anyway?

  • @OP – Whether or not these critters qualify may be in the eye—or the research study—of the beholder.

    I think “cute” is an evolved juvenile form to which which adults feel attracted and protective.

    Baby mammals in particular look “cute” to humans.

    Sometimes they look cute in photographs, but not so much when you smell them, hear them, or handle them.

    I suspect that part grown penguin chicks full of regurgitated fish, fit the latter category!



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  • For the infants of many species, being perceived as cute can mean the difference between life or death. Parental investment is closely tied to cuteness. Although we have been presented here with examples of cute baby animals, may I point out that humans are animals too and the cuteness of baby humans is directly linked to the degree of maternal investment or the absolute lack of it. Infanticide is a tactic in our female reproductive strategy (cue the shrieking and gnashing of teeth by those of the rose colored glasses) and one good predictor of an imminent infanticide is the judgement of a newborn human infant to be significantly defective in some way. Some of the factors that lead to a decision of unworthiness are behavioral such as excessive crying, bad temperament, too demanding of attention, etc. But if there are physical defects that are obvious to all then those neonates were/are at serious risk of being judged to be not worthy of further investment.

    From the book Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by Sarah Baffer Hrdy, here are some interesting excerpts from chapter 20, How To Be “An Infant Worth Rearing”:

    Birth rituals may occur right after birth, or months later. They may be celebrated simply, or with all the fanfare of a cathedral christening. In the majority of cultures, full rights as a group member are postponed till after inspection and acceptance of the baby by parents or alloparents who have committed to rear it. Criteria for acceptance can be arbitrary, and open to interpretation. Recall that in some South American tribes, too much or too little hair is considered a sign of maternal misconduct, dooming the neonate-but not necessarily. “This is not a human being, this child has no hair,” Elena Valero was told by other women after she gave birth among her Yanamamo captors. “Kill him at once,” they said, only to be contradicted by the husband who had taken Elena. He merely said, “Let her bring him up, even if he has no hair…” and told the women to go away. (Biocca, E. 1971, Yanoama. New York: Dutton, 162-63.



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  • From the same book by Hrdy as I mentioned above, Here is the conclusion of that same chapter, page 474:

    The question of what determines a woman’s reaction to her baby is often deemed too sensitive to discuss. For some the idea that there might be more than one possible response is abhorrent. Yet, from the little we have learned, it is clear that people are more drawn to look, or to look longer, at some babies than others. One typical response would be to say that interest was elicited because the baby was “cute.” But what does that mean?

    What “cute” usually means is: a rounded head, big eyes, and plump cheeks–al prime criteria toward Soranus’s determination of “full term.” These same neotenous traits persist in humans longer than in any other mammals. To some*, this suggests that childish appeal coevolved along with maternal ambivalence, as a sort of sweetener, inducing a discriminating mother to commit. Everywhere, one trait parents pay close attention to is how plump the baby is.

    *Lorenz, Alley (1981) and Maier et al. (1984) and are reviewed in Bogin 1996 (esp. 14-15).



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  • @LaurieB

    If I’m not mistaken, your two posts encapsulates the science behind a frustrated caregiver, of any mammal:

    Oh, if you weren’t just so darned CUTE…!.



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  • Laurie: For the infants of many species, being perceived as cute can mean the difference between life or death. Parental investment is closely tied to cuteness. Although we have been presented here with examples of cute baby animals, may I point out that humans are animals too and the cuteness of baby humans is directly linked to the degree of maternal investment or the absolute lack of it. Infanticide is a tactic in our female reproductive strategy

    I have to play the contrarian here. The source is stipulating a specialized definition of ‘cuteness” incompatible with common usage. By way of general background watch Olgun’s video above. The mama leopard not only nurtures the one-day old infant of another species but also nurtures a creature we humans might understandably regard as less than cute. Simply put, “parental investment,” or more precisely, bonding is clearly grounded in biological instinct and reflex that has little to do with physical appearance. Reviewing every instance of parental -especially maternal- infanticide, there would be no scarcity of cases where malformed or defective offspring were killed. On the other hand there would be a preponderance of cases where merely “ugly” babies were loved and nourished and cherished.

    “Cuteness” is an aesthetic not a scientific term. Our attempts to define it are woefully inadequate because we must rely on faux-objective language generated by deeply personal points of view. Declaring, for example, that cuteness or physical beauty depends on symmetry and proportion for a supermodel breaks down when we apply the criteria to a snake or a crab who exhibit the traits in spades.



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  • Melvin

    watch Olgun’s video above. The mama leopard not only nurtures the one-day old infant of another species but also nurtures a creature we humans might understandably regard as less than cute.

    I watched the video and recognize it as a segment from a show that I watched a while back in it’s entirety. I only wish I could remember the outcome of that odd couple. But I think we can both guess what happened at some time in the near future…and it probably wasn’t a pretty sight. I don’t see any behavior by that big cat that would suggest anything other than a predatory curiosity toward a lunch snack that amazingly showed up on it’s table with no effort on the cat’s part at all. That licking behavior must be common to cats. I’ve seen our late pet cat do that to the poor birds and rodents that it had snared with it’s killer claws but were frantically clinging onto life. I suspect it was part of the cruel playing with the victim before devouring it repertoire of cats. I don’t think that was maternal behavior at all. Those wildlife narrations can be stupidly anthropomorphic sometimes. And anyhow, I think that baby monkey was adorable. I’ll bet that cat chowed down on the dead primate and saved the baby for a midnight snack. Glad I didn’t see it happen.

    Conclusion: 1) The baby monkey is cute and 2) The baby monkey was toast before the sun set on that day.

    Simply put, “parental investment,” or more precisely, bonding is clearly grounded in biological instinct and reflex that has little to do with physical appearance.

    I wonder if you mean to apply that statement to all animals, some animals, just mammals, just primates or primates except for humans. there’s a difference. As your statement stands, it’s too simplistic. So if you are interested, think a bit about all the different parental investment strategies of say, birds (there are multiple patterns for them), reptiles, etc. In the book by Hrdy referenced above, she takes 541 pages to explain how humans are significantly different in their parental investment strategies than the rest of the primates. There are fascinating reasons for this that I can’t possibly reproduce here in an internet format. I think I can simplistically sum it up as this; human females have the capacity to produce offspring much more often than what is optimal for any environment that we inhabit. When food is ample and those infants survive pathogens and predators then a woman can end up with more children than she can provision and they all face starvation if that happens. Hence the high rate of infanticide in our evolutionary past. It’s shockingly high if you care to read on this subject and it’s universal and as far back in history as we can know. This is not easy material to read. That book left me with a sad and broken view of human motherhood that took me quite some time to accept. Oh well. Another paradigm bites the dust.

    there would be no scarcity of cases where malformed or defective offspring were killed.

    true.

    On the other hand there would be a preponderance of cases where merely “ugly” babies were loved and nourished and cherished.

    true again because the decision to invest in a baby/child for humans is based on several factors that come together all at once. For example, Are there adequate food and water resources to get that child through some years without endangering her other offspring that she has already committed to raising? Does she have the support of her female relatives and possibly the father of the child? In these cases if the answer is yes then I would expect her to commit to the infant even if it looked like Marty Feldman. Are there new interloper adult males on the scene who will not accept the other guy’s child and kill it? That mom would come back into fertility and produce and raise his own offspring.

    Think about it that way Melvin. All of these factors are still with us here and now. What the pro-choice advocates know is that all we really need for a reason to engage in the current day practice of infanticide – abortion, is that it’s just not the right timing for this pregnancy. It’s just bad timing. Tied up in that phrase is all of the above factors that have been judged by that pregnant woman to be lacking a positive answer. She sees doom and scary problems on the horizon. These are big weighty calculations on her part and I think that many of these decisions take place with thinking that is just under the surface sometimes.



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  • “Cuteness” is an aesthetic not a scientific term.

    You’ll be happy to hear that I was resoundingly booed by my science book club last month when I stated that “love is just a bunch of brain chemicals”, even though they had all previously agreed that we were all materialists. Apparently I’ve got some very wishy-washy materialists on my hands. But my point is that materialists believe that everything in nature is understandable or able to be investigated by science, right? Maybe we don’t have the answer today but I think that we probably will have the answer some day in the future. So yes, I do believe we can define and quantify love. Also hate, jealousy, ambition, bonding and ok- cuteness too! There are definite features in human neonates that are correlated with cuteness. Some of these are mentioned above.

    For more info check into Neoteny : From Wiki:

    Neoteny is the retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles (pedomorphosis/paedomorphosis), and is a subject studied in the field of developmental biology. In neoteny, the physiological (or somatic) development of an animal or organism is slowed or delayed.

    Also Robert Trivers wrote the (literal) book on parental investment strategies. Check into his work-very fascinating stuff.

    And now friend Melvin, it’s time to take off those rose colored glasses and toss them into the trash.

    I’ll hold your hand.



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  • Laurie: I don’t see any behavior by that big cat that would suggest anything other than a predatory curiosity toward a lunch snack

    The leopard had just killed the mother. If the predator were simply hungry, the baby baboon would have likely triggered an immediate kill-and-eat response. Neither you nor I know what went through the “mind” of the predator in this scenario. All we see is the behavior which is subject to interpretation. I believe the female leopard temporarily suspended her predatory instinct, and whatever appetite she had, stimulated by obviously confusing circumstances. Freak contingencies triggered a maternal instinct that transformed this small appendage of prey into the illusion of her own cub. The way she gently carried the newborn to safety from the hyena, cuddled it, and groomed it while ignoring the feast afforded by the fresh kill, was an Oscar-winning act of feline maternal behavior if it were not the real thing. Like you, I imagined the grizzly moment of truth when mama leopard inevitably sensed that this bite-sized chunk of meat belonged to a prey species and was not the fruit of her womb.

    Conclusion: 1) The baby monkey is cute…

    Quote from my comment above: Our attempts to define “cute” are woefully inadequate because we must rely on faux-objective language generated by deeply personal points of view… Cuteness lies in the eye of the beholder and not in declarative sentences. I found the baby baboon less than cute because of the pink naked face and jagged disproportionate ears. But I’m me and you’re you.

    I do believe we can define and quantify love. Also hate, jealousy, ambition, bonding and ok- cuteness too! There are definite features in human neonates that are correlated with cuteness.

    Certainly we humans can measure features or even quantify behavior with descriptive language that forms a consensus with the caveat that among individuals and communities, diverse divergent consensuses will emerge. I grant that standards of cuteness and beauty and “true love” enjoy widespread acceptance among societies, and increasingly on a global scale -again with many exceptions and variations. The book you cite tries to pick out features of neonates that correlate with “cuteness” and presumably play an important role in deciding for or against infanticide. With the exception of congenital deformities and disabilities unacceptable in mostly historic cultures, “cuteness” within a wide range of meaning plays almost no role. Maternal/paternal bonding with newborns is hard-wired. It may be easier for you and me to gaze longer on a photogenic baby with chubby cheeks than on others less endowed, but mothers filter out our indifferent ruminations. They love and cherish the child at their breast as the most beautiful, precious creature in the world.



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  • I watched the video and recognize it as a segment from a show that I
    watched a while back in it’s entirety. I only wish I could remember
    the outcome of that odd couple. But I think we can both guess what
    happened at some time in the near future…and it probably wasn’t a
    pretty sight.

    The baby died over night from the cold and lack of milk. The leopard simply walked away. (As far as I can remember anyway)



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  • 15
    bonnie says:

    They love and cherish the child at their breast as the most beautiful, precious creature in the world.

    ‘Gibson Girl’ imagery.



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  • We were in South Africa and had gone up the hill to see some caged cheetahs that had complications due to inbreeding. They didn’t really take much notice of us and even when my friends son, who was a little hyper say, was waving his arms around, it didn’t phase them. But, when another family came into view with their little girl, much smaller than our kids, skipping along, all the cheetahs instantly went into hunting mode. The inbreeding made them incapable of controlling their back legs when excited so they started falling all over the place but their eyes never left this little girl. The game keeper told us that they have another cheetah that visitors take pictures with but they have a minimum height restriction because the cheetah can’t help but want to hunt animals of a certain size.

    It seems these instincts switch on and off in an instant and can only think the mothering instant does so in the same way.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZw-1BfHFKM

    Not a happy ending but it was not the lioness that killed it. If you are a lion, chances are you live with other lions.



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  • Melvin

    If the predator were simply hungry, the baby baboon would have likely triggered an immediate kill-and-eat response

    But you must have observed felines toying with their prey before they start to eat it. They don’t necessarily devour it immediately.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-I5UBUBrCJ8

    All we see is the behavior which is subject to interpretation.

    Yes, but some interpretations are much more probable than others.

    the female leopard temporarily suspended her predatory instinct, and whatever appetite she had, stimulated by obviously confusing circumstances. Freak contingencies triggered a maternal instinct that transformed this small appendage of prey into the illusion of her own cub. The way she gently carried the newborn to safety from the hyena, cuddled it, and groomed it while ignoring the feast afforded by the fresh kill, was an Oscar-winning act of feline maternal behavior if it were not the real thing.

    Or…

    When felines have control of a prey animal they bat it, cuff it, pretend to let it go and chase it again. Toss it up in the air, slam it into the ground with their paw and maybe they immobilize it and lick it a few times before biting it.

    Come on Melvin. Occam’s razor…



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  • There are two confused instincts here. One is the lion not wanting to kill and the other a baby antelope that won’t run away.

    I agree with the guy at 6:58 who says that she’s more like a jailer.

    That sounds weirder than the mothering instinct? “I’ll save this to eat later”?



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  • Melvin

    Maternal/paternal bonding with newborns is hard-wired.

    Would you say that fathers of newborns immediately accept that they are the father of the child or do you think that there may be a period of observation where they try to find features that are familiar when they themselves look in the mirror? Because I find it interesting that there is always much discussion of this when families get together around a newborn. “Oh Melvin, he’s got your nose!” and so on. What if a guy isn’t too sure if he’s the father? Do they equivocate or blindly accept paternity because she says so?

    They love and cherish the child at their breast as the most beautiful, precious creature in the world.

    I know this is a beautiful thought but it’s unrealistic. How in the world can you defend this against the literature we have on maternal infanticide and even in the face of postpartum depression. Pinker speculates that pp depression is the manifestation of maternal failure to invest in her neonate but thwarted by modern law. I will try to find some numbers of modern day infanticide for you. Maybe tomorrow. 🙂



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  • Olgun

    That sounds weirder than the mothering instinct? “I’ll save this to eat later”?

    ha. Well they’re both weird! We’re trying to figure which is less weird…that’s weird right there!

    You know, I really wish Richard would just pop in and straighten us out on this. I’ll just bet he knows the answer right now.



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  • I’ve owned a a series of house cats and, yes, I’ve witnessed such playful mousicidal behavior.
    The cat in your video is domesticated, presumably well-fed, acting out with instinctively triggered predatory behavior with no urgent need to feed on the mouse: When felines have control of a prey animal they bat it, cuff it, pretend to let it go and chase it again. Toss it up in the air, slam it into the ground with their paw

    I do not see the leopard partake of an inkling of this behavior in Olgun’s video.

    and maybe they immobilize it and lick it a few times before biting it.

    I see more of this behavior in the video but the comparison with the house cat is a stretch. The female leopard treats the infant baboon like offspring, carrying it gently in her jaws to safety or hiding consistent with the way cat moms transport their kittens by the nape of the neck. After depositing her “cub” out of harms way, she turns back to face the hyena and menaces him into retreating. Unlike the domesticated cat, at no point in the footage does the leopard bight or strike the prey hard enough to hurt it or otherwise seem to play “cat and mouse” with its movements. On the contrary, all I see is gentle maternal behavior consistent that of any cat, big or small, wild or domesticated. What Olgun is showing us in the leopard-baboon and the lion-antelope videos are cases of cross-species bonding where maternal instincts are aroused by unusual circumstances.

    In any event, we seem to be drifting off-topic. My simple opposition was to the thesis that: For the infants of many species, being perceived as cute can mean the difference between life or death. “Cuteness” is a human linguistic construct employed as a word in a linguistic description relating to a (usually) pleasing property of an object either animate or inanimate. Non-human animals don’t “think” about “cuteness” because they don’t think linguistically. Humans, of course, can think about “cuteness” with respect to their offspring, among a million other things, because the word is in our language. Rarely, if ever, does the property we describe as “cuteness” play a decisive role in infanticide unless you want to torture common usage with a stipulated meaning.



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  • Fool me once, shame on you..fool me twice, well ..uh, er, shame on mousicidal cats…fool me three times well (gulp), a chicken pox on all your houses. …Regards, George “Melvin” Bush



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  • I will try to find some numbers of modern day infanticide for you. Maybe tomorrow.

    If those numbers are very large we would exist only in the fossil record.

    They love and cherish the child at their breast as the most beautiful, precious creature in the world.

    I know this is a beautiful thought but it’s unrealistic. How in the world can you defend this against the literature we have on maternal infanticide and even in the face of postpartum depression. Pinker speculates that pp depression is the manifestation of maternal failure to invest in her neonate but thwarted by modern law. I will try to find some numbers of modern day infanticide for you. Maybe tomorrow.

    I’m merely using sentimental language language to describe what we know beyond a reasonable doubt to be the normal bonding behavior of parents with infant progeny wired to biology. Infanticide, postpartum depression, skeptical paternity are all interesting sub-topics but largely off topic. They are interesting subjects in their own right worthy of exploration, but what do they have to do with the normal way human mothers, nurture, protect, comfort and, yes “love” their babies? And by the way what do they have to do with the “cuteness” of baby penguins or baby humans. (Sorry for the delayed response).



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