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Star Wars’ porgs and the power of “charismatic minifauna,” explained

The puffin-like creatures are unfortunately fictional. But their cuteness might be able to help real-life animals.

Look, it is a porg.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It is impossible to look at a porg, the fluffy orb of a creature that features prominently in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and not feel anything.

Sure, for anyone with an aversion to tiny teeth or who carries a deep (and correct) distrust of anything avian, they might seem a tad disturbing. But to a lot of people, the cute puffin-beagle-chipmunk-like creature from a galaxy far, far away is heart-meltingly adorable.

Disney, which owns Lucasfilm, is banking on that adorableness, pushing plush porgs and other merchandise hard this holiday season, to the delight and/or chagrin of fans who either love the little guys or see them as a blatant marketing gimmick.

But the adorableness of these critters offers the possibility of something beyond the millions they will make in merchandise. Call it the charismatic minifauna effect.

That term is exactly what it sounds like: a tiny animal that captures the imagination and affection of humans. The psychology behind charismatic minifauna is what makes people want to save hatchling sea turtles or those dancing birds of paradise. It’s why we want to take care of baby hedgehogs. It’s why we’re typically okay with squirrels but grossed out by rats.

And it’s why so many find porgs and porglets (baby porgs) so adorable that we want to protect them from any harm — up to and including backlash to their presence in The Last Jedi.

But the power of cuteness goes beyond online arguments. Its ability to worm its way into the human conscience is a phenomenon that can have real-world effects on our planet. Put another way: Animals can be so cute that they make humans want to save the world. Perhaps even porgs.

Charismatic minifauna and you

What we’ve come to learn over the past few years, especially with the rise of the internet, is that humans are attracted to “cute” things, which makes them more apt to share videos, pictures, and GIFs of said cute things. (See: the 15.3 million times people have watched “Buttermilk” the goat jump around and kick other little goats.) That attraction is clearly echoed in the rapturous online response to our first glimpse of the porgs back in October, when their brief appearance in the Last Jedi trailer became an instant meme.

But there’s something deeper at work here than mere cuteness. The attraction we feel to many of these creatures, porgs included, can be explained by their status as charismatic minifauna, an umbrella term for small animals that capture the imagination and affection of humans. It’s a relatively new term that riffs on the term “charismatic megafauna,” a phrase in the ecology world referring to bigger animals, like whales or pandas, that humans find appealing or feel a special affinity with.

“I work with an endangered mouse species, and while a lot of the general public think that mice are gross pests, when you show them a photo or video of an adorable endangered mouse, they can't help but feel an attraction and a desire to help safeguard them,” Katie Smith, a PhD candidate in the graduate group in ecology at UC Davis, one of the top ecology programs in the country, told me. “It's well understood (and obvious from the selective breeding of our pets) that humans are attracted to juvenile characteristics such as large eyes and a disproportionately large head, two characteristics that are especially prominent in the porg.”

Smith, who studies the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris), explained that these visual cues — giant eyes and big heads — stem from early human evolution, when humans were still learning which animals were dangerous and which ones weren’t. The humans who didn’t sense danger from, say, beady-eyed anacondas didn’t last very long. Animals that did not trigger our sense of danger — animals that are prey, more or less — became associated with positive feelings. (Today, the extension and evolution of those positive feelings can be seen in our culture’s desire for harmless, adorable teacup dogs and Napoleon cats.) Big eyes and big heads are also seen in human babies, which researchers have characterized as a survival mechanism born of the emotional response adults have to their cuteness, which inspires protective instincts.

The attraction we feel to these traits is played out again and again in the cultural objects we deem cute. It’s especially evident in animation, Disney movies in particular, which frequently renders its heroes and sidekicks in these cute, non-threatening ways. Just take a look at the colossal eyes on baby Dory (and her parents, and adult Dory) in Finding Dory:

A quick glimpse of the porg reveals these same traits on full display. It’s hard to look away from its giant eyes. The most threatening thing it can do with its pear-shaped body is waddle around a bit. Its bulbous cheeks make it look as if it’s smuggling delicious fluffy marshmallows. Quite simply, even with their pointy teeth, porgs don’t seem capable of bloody human carnage, because they have the traits humans are hardwired to appreciate.

The attraction we feel to this harmless cuteness is at the core of what Disney undoubtedly hopes will be a lucrative porg payoff: As Reuters points out, porgs are the top-searched Star Wars character on Disney’s online store, and Hasbro says they’ve been selling well. But our affection for charismatic mini- and megafauna can be applied to more than just skillful marketing. These animals, no matter how big or small, have the potential to help change the world.

Pop culture can affect the way humans treat our planet

What’s fascinating for ecologists who study charismatic minifauna and megafauna is how these positive human feelings toward animals can go beyond mere appreciation of cuteness and become inspiration for conservationist action.

Essentially, when people are drawn to charismatic mega- and minifauna, they may feel protective of those animals, due to traits the animals display. That protective instinct has the potential to extend to those creatures’ wider ecosystems, including other, perhaps less charismatic, fauna. April Ridlon, an ecologist, told me that jaguars, which people admire for their beauty and majestic nature as opposed to cuteness, are actually a great example of this.

“Jaguars are a perfect charismatic megafauna,” she told me. “They have a wide home range of land. So when people [and conservation groups] protect the jaguar and these wide tracts of land, they’re also protecting everything in that ecosystem.”

More charismatic mega- and minifauna mean more awareness around conservation of those animals and their environments, which can lead to action in the form of everything from monetary donations to volunteering to scientific research. Essentially: save the charismatic minifauna, save the world.

Now, granted, Star Wars and porgs are fictional; nature programs like Planet Earth and Blue Planet are more directly effective in terms of forming a connection between human viewers and the animals and ecosystems featured. But fictional movies are also capable of raising awareness about conservation — provided viewers take away the right message.

“I think it definitely can be a positive way to connect people to animals and especially to help them understand how their own actions can affect the animals and their habitats,” Ridlon told me, citing examples like Free Willy and Finding Nemo. “But I also think it can lead people to want to collect those animals as pets, or harass them in the wild, so it is a double-edged sword in that regard. The movies that deliver a message about respecting animals as wild and/or helping protect them or their habitats are obviously the best kind, because they make the connection and deliver a clear message at once.”

The porgs hold that potential in their evocation of animals and ecosystems recognizable to our own galaxy: According to Lucasfilm Story Group’s Pablo Hidalgo, porgs are Star Wars’ analog to the puffin. And Last Jedi director Rian Johnson confirmed the porg-puffin connection in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, pointing out that the choice stemmed from the actual ecosystem that inspired the scenes on the Jedi temple planet Ahch-To.

“If you go to Skellig [the Irish island that represents Ahch-To in the film] at the right time of year, it’s just covered in puffins, and they’re the most adorable things in the world,” Johnson told EW. “So when I was first scouting there, I saw these guys, and I was like, oh, these are part of the island. And so the porgs are in that realm.”

The similarities between porgs and puffins are definitely there, if you squint; meanwhile in our own galaxy, the wild populations of puffins and other seabirds within their ecosystem are under threat from overhunting. Puffins may not be charismatic minifauna in the classic sense or as well-known as other charismatic minifauna, but their visual association with porgs may just be the signal boost they need — even if it comes from a galaxy far, far away.

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