, Volume 128, Issue 4, pp 227-235
Date: 05 Nov 2009

What makes some species of milk snakes more attractive to humans than others?

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Abstract

Animals are ancestrally important stimuli for humans who pay disproportional attention to animal objects and exhibit an outstanding ability to categorize animal species, especially those most relevant to them. Humans as well as other primates perceive snakes as ambivalent stimuli that elicit unspecific arousal and attention. We assessed human aesthetic preferences toward milk snakes, the traditional model for studies of Batesian mimicry. The genus is fairly uniform in size and shape, but includes a great variety of color forms; some possessing aposematic patterns while others being rather cryptic. This provides an opportunity to test which features are responsible for positive aesthetic evaluation of the species. We asked the respondents to rank 34 pictures of milk snakes according to perceived beauty. The sets (whole bodies, heads, and skin fragments) covered most of naturally occurring variation in milk snake appearance. While ranking the beauty, the respondents spontaneously classified the species according to two dimensions. In each set, one of the dimensions corresponds to perceived beauty. The respondents’ ranking revealed several distinct clusters of species instead of a continuous gradient. The species clustered in a similar way irrespective of evaluated set. One dimension of the ranking associated with the relative representation of red color and the number of transversal stripes, the other corresponded to a low proportion of red and a high proportion of black color. When the whole body of the snake is evaluated, aposematic coloration contributes to its perceived beauty. In conclusion, humans showed a surprising ability to classify milk snake patterns; they repeatedly formed the same distinct groups of species, thus completing a process that resembles unsupervised categorization.