Why are baby animals cute?

Simple question: Why do baby animals appear cute to humans? It’s obvious why we prefer human babies, but why animal babies? Even babies that are extremely different than we are like reptiles or birds and even some insects. What purpose does it serve for us to look at a baby turtle waddling to the ocean and our brains go ‘Awwww, how adorable?’

A corollary question that is probably easier to answer, why are many baby mammals softer than their adult counterparts?

(Maybe sometime in the future we can discuss why we find deserts beautiful too. :slight_smile: )

It’s just a corollary of the fact that we find human babies cute. Human babies have disproportionately large heads and eyes and small noses/short faces, so we find these characteristics attractive. As a side effect, we find most animals with these characteristics cute, not just babies (including reptiles and birds) but adult animals like pandas, owls, small primates, koalas, and so forth. Likewise, cartoon characters from Mickey Mouse to Hello Kitty are given these babylike characteristics.

Baby animals aren’t universally cute.

This baby wallaby is nightmare fuel to me.

I think like Colibri said it depends on how many characteristics it shares with a human baby, since we’re genetically wired as a species to be affectionate to our young. Baby flies (maggots) are considered by most people to be extremely disgusting. I think the more “alien” a baby is, the less “cute” it is.

As with the other one, its likely as much your opinion as anything else. However, the smaller an animal is, the greater surface area to body volume it has. And that will cause it to lose heat. So we have fluffy mammals, downy chickens, even neonatal humans have lanugo – probably an evolutionary holdover and not as a practical covering. Then they grow in size, need less heat retention, and more practical fur – shedding rain, letting excess heat out, as individual identification and for sexual selection. Example: the ugly pin feathers of a pullet.

There’s a Wikipedia article on cuteness that covers a lot of the basics—including “why” as in “what in particular makes baby animals cute?” and “why” as in “what purpose does cuteness serve?”

Exactly. The O.P. really meant mammals only, and maybe chickens. And even only some animals: newborn rabbits are nude, newborn hares are furry. Chicks are fuzzy and cute, naked songbirds are gangly and gross. After the wallaby has been in the pouch for a bit, and furred out, its every bit as cute as any other cute wittle baby head sticking out of mommas pouch.

Unless the O.P. really likes newly hatched lizards, or caterpillars, or routinely cuddles fish fry with their yolks still attached.

Hrm. Seems we really like down and fur. Now I wonder why that is. The lanugo I mentioned doesn’t make human babies cuddly – it kinda freaks people out a bit. Why do we like furry? Maybe we don’t like to be cold, and we like the feel of fur, and we just transfer the like to cuddling?

There was a recent study that claimed to show that (doggie) puppies reach peak cuteness at 6-8 weeks. The authors hypothesized that this might be adaptive, since this is weaning age, when mom is kicking the pups out to fend for themselves, so this is the age when human help might be most beneficial.

But the causal relationship is a bit of an evolutionary “just so” story, I can’t imagine how you would test it rigorously. And obviously the young of many non-domesticated species are equally cute, so it could easily just be coincidence.

The article actually suggests a rather easy way to disprove it. Just do similar tests on the pups of wolves and other wild canids. The article says that wolves care for their cubs for up to two years, while domestic dogs abandon puppies after a few weeks. If wolf cubs reach peak cuteness at a similar time as puppies despite differences in parental care, it would tend to refute the hypothesis. Likewise one could look at cuteness in the pups of other wild canids relative to when they are on their own.

Obviously, domestic dogs would never have evolved if they had had that kind of mortality rate of puppies before they were cared for by humans. So the fact that female dogs abandon their puppies is a consequence of the fact that they routinely receive care by humans.

I think that many people find baby reptiles cute. Baby alligators and turtles and lizards. I think that even some baby snakes are cute. Baby fish not so much, but I think that lots of people like even naked baby birds like robins in the nest. Much more so after they get down, but I think plenty of people think baby birds are cute. As for wallabies, after they get hair, only a monster would think they aren’t cute and I would wager that quite a few people would find them cute in their hairless form as well.


My first thought was that it would be difficult to untangle the proposed mechanism of natural selection from artificial selection, since we breed for neoteny. But on reflection, drawing any distinction between “natural” and “artificial” selection in an animal that coevolves with humans is arbitrary. There’s no functional difference between selecting an attractive feral puppy to adopt and selecting from a breeder’s litter.

Also, since humans have been dependent on domesticated animals for a very long time, our “cute, must care for it” standard has probably evolved to be a lot looser than it used to be. Humans who cared about animals enough to raise and domesticate them have had a large advantage for most of human history.

Awww…what a cutie pie! To me, it’s the vulnerability that contributes to the “cuteness.” It triggers some sort of protective instinct.

I think our brains are hardwired to be protective of babies, and this instinct naturally extends to life we are very accustomed to and that share our spaces or immediate surroundings - plants, cats, dogs, birds. The instinct becomes weaker in the case of critters we usually associate with pestilence (rats) or physical danger (snakes), and disappears altogether as we become genetically far removed from them (insects). I don’t find baby insects of any sort attractive.

I think many people have overcome such instincts and learned to love critters nature tells us are unattractive or dangerous; power to them.

I’m not sure the ‘looks like a human baby’ recipe for cuteness works since there’s a lot of people who think puppies, kittens, ducklings, etc. are cute that don’t find babies cute. Here’s Dara O’Briain doing a quick audience survey on the issue: https://youtu.be/nxVFzLUWLl8.

Yup, I’d be among them. I’d say my reaction to human babies is fairly neutral, whereas I have a visceral cuteness reaction to kittens etc. I think human kids come closer to eliciting a similar cuteness reaction when they are a bit older maybe, but still not as strong.