Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 17 News List

How 'kawaii'!

Cuteness is not the same as beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Cuteness needs affection and a lap

By Natalie Angier  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Baby movements are notably clumsy, an amusing combination of jerky and delayed, because learning to coordinate the body's many bilateral sets of large and fine muscle groups requires years of practice. On starting to walk, toddlers struggle continuously to balance themselves between left foot and right and so the toddler gait consists as much of lateral movement as of any forward momentum.

Researchers who study animals beloved by the public appreciate the human impulse to nurture anything even remotely babylike, though they are at times taken aback by people's efforts to identify with their preferred species.

Take penguins as an example. Some people are so wild for the creatures, said Michel Gauthier-Clerc, a penguin researcher in Arles, France, "they think penguins are mammals and not birds." They love the penguin's upright posture, its funny little tuxedo, the way it waddles as it walks.

Endearing as it is, Dr. Gauthier-Clerc explained that the apparent awkwardness of the penguin's march had nothing to do with clumsiness or uncertain balance. Instead, he said, penguins waddle to save energy. A side-to-side walk burns fewer calories than a straightforward stride and for birds that fast for months and live in a frigid climate, every calorie counts.

As for the penguin's maestro garb, the white front and black jacket suits its aquatic way of life. While submerged in water, the penguin's dark backside is difficult to see from above, camouflaging the penguin from potential predators of air or land. The white chest, by contrast, obscures it from below, protecting it against carnivores and allowing it to better sneak up on fish prey.

The giant panda offers another case study in accidental cuteness. Although it is a member of the bear family, a highly carnivorous clan, the giant panda specializes in eating bamboo.

As it happens, many of the adaptations that allow it to get by on such a tough diet contribute to the panda's cute form, even in adulthood. Inside the bear's large, rounded head, said Lisa Stevens, assistant panda curator at the National Zoo, are the highly developed jaw muscles and the set of broad, grinding molars it needs to crush its way through some 18kg of fibrous bamboo plant a day.

When it sits up against a tree and starts picking apart a bamboo stalk with its disting-uishing pseudo-thumb, a panda looks like nothing so much like Huckleberry Finn shucking corn. Yet the humanesque posture and paws again are adaptations to its menu. The bear must have its "hands" free and able to shred the bamboo leaves from their stalks.

The panda's distinctive markings further add to its appeal: the black patches around the eyes make them seem winsomely low on its face, while the black ears pop out cutely against the white fur of its temples.

As with the penguin's tuxedo, the panda's two-toned coat very likely serves a twofold purpose. On the one hand, it helps a feeding bear blend peacefully into the dappled backdrop of bamboo. On the other, the sharp contrast between light and dark may serve as a social signal, helping the solitary bears locate each other when the time has come to find the perfect, too-cute mate.

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