By Mark Carnall, on 14 September 2011
No. Not the animal stars of the silver screen but a term we use in the Grant Museum to describe a certain set of animals. Hollywood animals* are charismatic animals that are readily identifiable and although the simple classification system of “Hollywood” or “not” doesn’t refer to other taxonomic systems we can see that the possession of some biological characteristics can significantly improve your chances. In museums, Hollywood animals tend to get used more in education and in exhibitions because they are more readily identifiable and interesting to look at. Hollywood animals also tend to get used more in wider popular culture, in branding for wildlife agencies and in many ways represent wildlife, nature and the rest of the animal kingdom.
To give some examples, lions, pandas, kangaroos, koalas, rhinoceroses, elephants, chimpanzees, dinosaurs, zebras, penguins, parrots and whales are all Hollywood animals. By contrast most fish, rodents, bats, amphibians, reptiles, all prehistoric creatures (excepting some dinosaurs, mammoths and a few others) and practically all invertebrates aren’t Hollywood. Here the definition doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny because although ‘Lions’ are definitely a Hollywood animal, they start to lose some of their appeal if you about European Lions, Asiatic Lions or Massai Lions and this is understandable. There are unknown millions of species of animals and most people probably don’t find it worthwhile to familiarise themselves with each and every one of them (those who do either become zoologists or lose interest around puberty). Recognising a few of the most distinctive animals works as a great shorthand to be able to function in society and conveniently in museums we don’t have to work so hard to explain exactly what a starfish is and isn’t. One of the most effective way we work with specimens is to get people to identify the animal from one of our specimens which can be an isolated tooth, appendage or section. This would be much harder and less rewarding if people don’t know the original animal anyway.
Why do some animals attain celebrity and others remain obscure? Distinctiveness is certainly key. Virtually everyone can identify a giraffe but would struggle to identify different species of deer or even know the difference between deer and antelope. Distinctiveness isn’t everything though, fans of fossil organisms know that wonderful extinct creatures such as the mammal Arsinotherium, the reptile Tanystropheus and the amphibian Diplocaulus and crazy sharks like Stethacanthus possess a range of distinctive features that we don’t see in extant animals. It looks like being extinct ruins your chances of getting onto the Hollywood list but then how do we explain the persistence in the public consciousness of the misnomer Brontosaurus, given that it hasn’t been a valid name since as far back as 1903?
There are plenty of very distinctive animals alive today that sadly don’t seem to make the grade when it comes to recognizability. These nudibranchs are awesome for example as is this mussel that looks like a fish. Being a terrestrial animal seems like an easy route to Hollywood too. Another way to increase your recognizability is to feature in an animated movie. We were astonished at how younger visitors could more readily correctly identify a lemur skull around the time that Madagascar was released, despite the obvious differences between a CGI talking cartoon character and a disembodied skull. Hollywood animals tend to have common names but we could ask which came first. Was an animal already Hollywood before it was given a common name or is it only animals that already have common names that are more likely to become Hollywood? Size also seems to be important, I’d say that animals bigger than a domestic cat are more likely to be better known, despite the fact that most animal, higher than 95% of species, aren’t bigger than a domestic cat.
So in summary, the following characteristics define many Hollywood animals (and therefore the animals you are likely to see in museums and in wildlife documentaries) are:
1) Bigger than a cat
2) Live on land
3) Still alive today
4) Have a common name
5) Are vertebrates
6) Look/smell/sound somewhat silly/scary/cute
Don’t just take our word for it though, next time you are in a natural history museum see how many specimens you see that don’t have some of the above characteristics. Should natural history museums be championing the underdogs and broadening the general awareness of a wide diversity of animals? Or should we stick to wheeling out the same animals for ease of communicating broader topics in zoology? Would you be disappointed to visit a natural history museum to find that you couldn’t easily recognise a single specimen?
* There is some scope for smaller groups within the Hollywood system and some authors** suggest a division into sub groups A-List, B-list, C-list, Z-list, reality TV animals and Not Hollywood.
** No authors suggest this.