Britons know mythical creatures better than real-life fantastic beasts

Britons have greater awareness of mythical creatures like mermaids, Ewoks and the Yeti than some of world’s most unique and irreplaceable real-life species, according to a new survey commissioned by international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London). 

Only 20% of Britons surveyed could identify the axolotl from a list of fantasy creatures and real-life EDGE species

The survey of 1,000 people was commissioned by ZSL to mark the 10-year anniversary of its EDGE of Existence programme, which was established in 2007 to identify and conserve the world’s most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species – from mammals that lay eggs, to frogs that give birth through their skin. 

Asked to identify animals they recognised from a list combining both fantasy creatures from literature and film with real-life EDGE species, it was found that whilst 78 per cent of respondents had heard of the Gruffalo – immortalised in the eponymous children’s book – just one per cent were aware of the hirola (Beatragus hunteri), one of the world’s rarest and most threatened antelope species. 

Similarly, the mythical unicorn scored 88 per cent in terms of awareness, but just three per cent of respondents were familiar with solenodons – burrowing, insect-eating animals that live only on two Caribbean islands and hold the distinction of being one of the world’s only venomous mammals.

Other fantastical beasts scoring high for public awareness are the Jabberwocky (65%), the Sasquatch (62%), and the Wookiee (58%) – vastly overshadowing real-life wonders including the axolotl salamander (20%), shoebill stork (12%) and numbat (8%), an Australian marsupial species. 

Only 12% of people surveyed could identify the shoebill - a large waterbird with an almost prehistoric appearance

ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme manager Dr Nisha Owen, said: “This survey, although light-hearted, perfectly highlights the importance of the work of the EDGE of Existence programme, as we’re working tirelessly to save remarkable creatures which, in many cases, the public might not have even heard of.  

“In only our first decade, we’ve mapped, ranked and promoted the conservation of many of the world’s most amazing species – creatures that, if they were allowed to go extinct, would effectively take a whole branch of the tree of life with them. 

“By creating a global community of EDGE Fellows, working on the ground to save these fantastic creatures, we’re making a real difference to their long-term prospects. But greater public awareness of their plight is another crucial part of the equation – so as EDGE celebrates its tenth birthday, we’re calling on conservationists worldwide to ensure these species receive the attention they deserve.”

As part of EDGE’s tenth anniversary, visitors to ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will be able to hear a series of special talks, celebrating some of the EDGE species that call these world-class Zoos home – from pygmy hippos (Choeropsis liberiensis) and Bactrian camels (Camelus ferus), to Malayan tapirs (Tapirus indicus), aye-ayes (Daubentonia madagascariensis) and other lemurs. 

Learn more about ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme

More news from ZSL

A close up image showing fresh palm oil fruit

ZSL research shows industry must increase transparency to combat deforestation 

A group of smallspotted catshark investigates an underwater camera in Cardigan Bay 

Citizen scientists invited to ‘plunge’ into Welsh waters to help research rare aquatic species

A wollemi pine cone

ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew publish list of highly threatened plants with unique evolutionary traits to...