9 Animals You Didn’t Know Were Cute Until #CuteOff Happened

We weigh in on the critical question of critter cuteness with in-house expert Jonathan Kolby.

A fierce competition has been raging on Twitter, with rivals vying for attention and factions picking their champions.

The competition? A #CuteOff. Instigated by Anne Hilborn, the same ecologist who started the recent #JunkOff hashtag that inspired scientists to post pictures of increasingly incredible critter genitalia, the Cute Off gained steam when the Herpetology Society of Ireland, frankly, brought it.

National Geographic, as you may know, has long been a connoisseur of cute. (Check out these ‘dorable duos).

So with #TeamMammal, #TeamHerpetology, #TeamOrnithology, #TeamIchthyology, and even #TeamExtinct (they’re dead in the water) duking it out on Twitter, we’ve decided to weigh in on this friendly fight with our own expert arbiter of adorable, National Geographic Young Explorer Jonathan Kolby.

Kolby, a vocal participant in the #CuteOff, has selected nine of his favorite surprisingly cute critters. Check out our lineup of the lesser-known lovables of the animal world.

First up: The tardigrade.

Why the tardigrade? “It’s just fascinating-cute. You’ve got this animal, that first off is like microscopic but obviously is like a chunky little animal in his own little world. And he basically has no face, and that’s why I like him so much,” Kolby says. “I just think it’s really cute. ”

These tough microscopic critters voyaged into the inhospitable climates of outer space—on a mission actually called TARDIS (Tardigrades in Space)—and lived to reproduce.

Next up is this tiny little cuttlefish—Kolby doesn’t discriminate against invertebrates.

(Check out our gallery of incredible cuttlefish photos.)

The hashtag features lots of animals with big eyes, but Kolby looks beyond the large-eyed mold for top-notch adorableness. “Having two eyes is not a prerequisite for cuteness,” he says. You could have lots of eyes, like this jumping spider, and still be cute, he says.

(Bees may be less charitable, though. Check out our video of a jumping spider stalking a bee.)

And we can’t forget the nudibranch, a tiny hermaphroditic sea slug that looks like a bunny. (Read more about the sea bunny that took over the Internet).

Though cute, these sea slugs are equipped with spines that they stab into their partners during mating. Kolby doesn’t let the animals’ behaviors sway him on their respective levels of adorbs, though. “Every animal has its cute things and its not-so-cute things,” he says. “I like to be fair.”

Kolby says he’s happy to see animals that aren’t considered "mainstream cute" captured in the #CuteOff. Smiling cownose rays score another point for the underwater contingent.

These gourami smoochers are pretty cute too, even though they’re fighting.

#TeamMammal, though well-represented in the #CuteOff hashtag, barely made it into Kolby’s list. This fuzzy little tenrec is native to Madagascar, and curls into a spiny ball when attacked.

Another cutie that breaks the big-eyed mold makes up for it with what looks like a big smile. This weird-looking critter is a caecilian, a legless amphibian that lives in Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and from southern Mexico to Argentina. Because it lives underground, it has teeny tiny eyes.

Kolby’s final contestant is this sleepy frog, a shot he snapped himself.

So who won this competition? No one has announced a definitive victor on Twitter yet, but to Kolby the winner, while a difficult choice, is clear. “After much difficult deliberation and soul-searching, I’ve picked the cownose rays posted by [@]SmithsonianEnv,” he says. Looks like #TeamIchthyology is this National Geographic explorer's champion of cuteness.