Why do humans love baby animals? Why do we find them so cute – even sometimes, species that we regard as pests, dangerous or otherwise undesirable as adults? Take this baby tern. If you went anywhere near it, you would be in for a nasty pecking by its parent. But people risk that to get a better look at the heart-meltingly adorable youngster.

And they don’t have to be a bundle of fur or down feathers. Goofy looking young ones have a charm of their own.

They retain their appeal as they grow into stroppy teenagers, demanding to be fed …

Although their appeal to their parents may be somewhat diminished …

… which is quite a strong parallel with humans too. But is it just anthropomorphism and people projecting the human condition onto animals, or is it our fundamental need to nurture, even cross species?

The answer to this was sought by Konrad Lorenz, who studied ‘baby schema’ features that are expressed not just by human babies, but by a range of animals including young mammals and birds. Studies have confirmed the phenomenon, and also show that women react more positively than men to cute animals as well as human babies. In evolutionary terms, it may be that we like baby animals because they have similar characteristics to baby humans, as Lorenz suggested – and it’s better for our need to nurture to cross species boundaries to non-humans, than not to be triggered easily enough. It may also be that there has been an evolutionary advantage in forming bonds with young animals.

The above terns were photographed on trips to the Isle of May on 30th July 2016 and 9th July 2017.

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