Do wildlife photographers have a blind spot for adult females? A test using the springbok


There seems to be a subconscious bias in favour of 'the big male', that is detrimental to the study of ungulates and other mammals.

When presented with opportunities to photograph representative specimens of large mammals, wildlife photographers tend to focus on mature males, as if they are not only self-evidently the fullest expression of the appearance of the species in question, but also the most biologically important.

This assumption is questionable, because adult females are arguably the most relevant category, and the ones for which we should have the fullest pictorial documentation.

Females are the ones actually bearing progeny, so that their body sizes and shapes are immediately central to the survival of the species. Because one male individual can potentially inseminate many females, males vary greatly relative to any female standard, according to degrees and types of sexual dimorphism.

Imagine that naturalists sought to compile a set of representative photos for a certain clade of large mammals, but were so constrained for space that only one photo per species could be afforded. Should we choose females or males?

My answer would be: females.

And yet, perusal of wildlife guide-books suggests that the subconscious bias is in favour of males. This confusion is perhaps, in part, a legacy of the initial interest in large mammals mainly as 'game', in which the trophy value' is more important than the biological nature.

Any bias in favour of 'the big male' is particularly understandable in extremely sexually dimorphic spp., in which males really are so spectacular that females seem overshadowed.

However, it seems to apply even to relatively monomorphic spp.

So, I found myself curious, today, to see how well Google Images delivers, when it comes to good 'specimen photos' of the springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), in the wild.

The springbok seems to provide a useful test of the bias described above, because it is so common and familiar (and happens also to be the national emblem mammal of South Africa).

To test this, what I did today was to search Google Images for specimen photos specifically focussing on adult females of this species - and suitable for a field guide-book aimed at balanced coverage of the appearance and biological nature of spp.

By specimen photo, I mean a whole-body depiction, in body profile, preferably with the face turned towards the photographer, and 'frontlit' in direct illumination. An example, for MALES, is

The following are the results of this search that I conducted today, for females:

(All of these photos appear in Google Images, and depict adult females as the main subject.)

Possibly the photographer only bothered with this specimen because he/she took it to be male:

When I searched instead for photos of infants, I found several photos that include adult females as if partly for context:

So, is it hard to find 'specimen photos' of adult females?

In the case of this species, the answer seems to be 'no', with the stipulation that this refers only to ssp. hofmeyri. In the case of the nominate ssp., I have found only at most one satisfactory photo, despite the abundance on private land and in several national parks in South Africa.

In the case of ssp. angolensis, the best photo is to be found in iNaturalist:

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised to find a fair number of photos on the Web, more or less conforming to the specifications I set out.

So either my precepts have been incorrect, or there is now such a large number of photos available on the Web that even adult females are well-enough represented.

Also see

Posted on August 28, 2022 09:01 PM by milewski milewski


Very true! I saw this with photographers and filmmakers filming mandrills. A species with huge size differences and adult males being extremely colourful. They are focussed on the large males

Posted by koenbetjes about 1 year ago

@koenbetjes Many thanks for your comment. Is there a single satisfactory depiction, anywhere on the Web including iNaturalist, of adult females of the mandrill?

Posted by milewski about 1 year ago

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