The Cute and the Damned

The long-beaked echidna does not share much in common with the golden-rumped elephant shrew, although both are endangered. Despite living on the edge of extinction, however, they’re both largely overlooked by the conservation world—mostly because they’re weird.

The nocturnal Slender Loris teeters on the edge of extinction.© Zoological Society of London

But thanks to a new program from the Zoological Society of London, a homely face will no longer be a barrier to conservation protection. The Edge of Existence program, which aims to protect "Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered" (EDGE) animals, offers vital attention to a prioritized list of the not-so-cute but critically endangered creatures, a whopping 70 percent of which are largely ignored by the conservation community.

"We will be working to protect some of the world’s most extraordinary species, all of which are teetering on the "edge" of extinction," says Jonathan Baillie, director of the program. "It is a tragedy that many EDGE species are being ignored and are slipping silently towards extinction."

EDGE species rate high on a scale that combines endangered status with a species" "Evolutionary Distinctiveness," or genetic uniqueness. A species with a high "ED" score, says Carly Waterman of the EDGE program, "has been evolving independently for a long time and thus has few if any close relatives. Its loss would result in a greater loss to biodiversity than that of a young species with many close relatives."

The program’s Top 10 focus species for 2008 include such peculiar animals as the Bumblebee Bat ("possibly the world’s smallest mammal"), the Long-Eared Jerboa ("a mouse-like animal with the largest ear-to-body ratio of any mammal") and the Slender Loris (a "shy nocturnal primate with gigantic eyes"). The program does not discriminate against a pretty face, though, and some more popular creatures such as elephants and pandas have reached priority status as well.

The program works to protect EDGE creatures through scientific research, education and protection strategies. So far, nine EDGE Fellows, who hail from the same regions as the creatures they study, are busy finalizing their project plans and conducting research in the field.

For the long-beaked echidna, EDGE scientists may have arrived just in time. Although many conservationists had assumed that this porcupine-like creature had already slipped into extinction, an EDGE team discovered that it still survives in the Cyclops Mountains of Papua, Indonesia.