Top 10 most popular reptiles (and why it matters)

CC BY 2.0 unicurse/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists reveal the reptiles that get the most public attention in order to address conservation issues.
The Internet is chock-full of top 10 lists, I’m pretty sure there is not a single thing in existence that hasn’t been ranked in this manner. And I'm guilty of writing them myself – even if often times the frivolity (and ensuing popularity) of said lists seem like a depressing indication of how dumbed-down we are becoming.

So it was with a bit of surprise to see that scientists from Oxford and Tel Aviv Universities had entered into the fray with their list of the world's most popular reptiles – what kind of noble scientific pursuit is that?!

But of course there’s more to the picture than a ranking of favorite cold-blooded critters. The authors of the study were looking to provide quantitative data in the debate around conservation priorities.

John C Mittermeier from Oxford University and co-lead author of the study explains, “There is a debate in conservation as to whether the fact that we as humans like a particular species justifies conserving it, regardless of its importance from an ecological point of view.”

“Although this idea of some species being 'culturally valuable' has been around for some time, it has been difficult to measure and define. Whether or not we want to take these cultural variables into account when shaping conservation policy, we need data to support those decisions,” he adds.

So the researchers – a group of zoologists, geographers and computer scientists – did what any of us would do, they headed to Wikipedia.

But their method was maybe a bit more involved than most. They looked at all 55.5 million pageviews for 2014 for the 10,002 reptile species represented in Wikipedia.

“In the past we could have carried out basic surveys of a few hundred or a few thousand individuals to find out where their interest lay, whereas now we can do it with millions of people for an entire class of organisms on a global scale,” says co-lead author Dr. Uri Roll, from Oxford University. “Obviously there are limitations to using an online tool such as Wikipedia, but there are lots of benefits too.”

What they found was an especial proclivity for venomous and endangered species, as well as those with higher body mass or posing a threat to humans – big, rare, and scary for the win!

Among all languages, the Komodo dragon took the crown as the most popular species overall, with 2,014,932 page views for the year. Here's the whole who's who of the reptiles the world is most interested in:

1. Komodo dragon

2. Black mamba

3. Saltwater crocodile

4. King cobra

5. Gila monster

6. Cottonmouth (viper)

7. American alligator

8. Leatherback sea turtle

9. Nile crocodile

10. Boa constrictor

Roll says that popularity is an issue in conservation because the resources are so limited and decisions must be made about how to allocate funding. It’s a daunting question, how do you prioritize efforts to save one species over another? Are rare or endangered species more important than ecologically important species, or ones that attract the most public interest?

“Among more traditional conservationists there may be the view that we shouldn't incorporate cultural values into decisions about policy or funding,” Mittermeier notes. “However, the fact is that whether we like it or not, we already do – how much funding do lions get compared with, for example, a species of small snail that doesn't even have an English name, even if the snail is more at risk of going extinct? The biases are already there.”

“There's also an argument that the traditional thinking around conservation hasn't quite worked, so we need to reframe our approach,” he adds. “Regardless of the point of view you take, having this sort of quantitative data is critical.”

Saving the world’s animals, one top 10 list at a time.

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