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March Mammal Madness tournament shows the power of ‘performance science’

Let the games begin. Katie Hinde, Author provided

In early March most science professors are writing midterms and eagerly awaiting spring break to catch up on research. We’re no exceptions, but we are also preparing to emcee a tournament like no other, with thousands of “spectators” in the United States and worldwide: March Mammal Madness.

This epic event mimics the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual 64-team, single-elimination Division I basketball tournament. Instead of human athletes, it features simulated animal battles that reflect attributes of each competing species, including temperament, size, weaponry, armor and fight style.

Scientists creatively script the battles to showcase animals’ cool adaptations, conservation concerns and ecological contexts. An occasional nonmammal entrant makes an appearance, such as this year’s gila monster. Commentaries quote scientific research on ecology, social behavior, evolution and parenting, weaving in pop culture references and jokes galore.

The elaborate battle narratives are “live-tweeted.” Summaries of the outcomes are posted on Facebook and tweets are archived on Storify. For fans who want to dive a little deeper, battle narrators link to peer-reviewed articles that help determine the likely outcome of these clashes. Additional scientists will be on deck this year tweeting about genetics, genomics and phylogeny of battle species.

March Mammal Madness is collective, performance science – the story of animals, told with imagination, creativity and awe for the natural world. We celebrate species and the ecosystems they inhabit, scientists who conduct studies, funders who make the research possible and the irreverence of the human spirit, which makes triumph and defeat opportunities for mad trash talk. This tournament is a love letter to science, about science and from science for all who participate.

Wolf of the Tundra, the 2016 champion. Cynthia Rudzis, Author provided

Know your species

March Mammal Madness was launched in 2013 when one of us (Hinde) decided to elevate existing animal bracket games that were rolling around the internet. Instead of a 16-species bracket based on “cuteness,” she created a mammal bracket for her Comparative Lactation Lab and tossed it up on her blog as a lark, thinking “Maybe my mom will play.”

That contest started with a battle between a naked mole rat and a dusky titi monkey for the wild-card 16th seed. Soon scientists were taking to Twitter to root for their favorite species. By the end it was clear that fans expected this to become an annual event. Chris Anderson and Josh Drew became co-organizers in 2014 until today, along with paleoanthropologist Kristi Lewton from 2014-2016.

One key takeaway is that battle narratives don’t always boil down to “nature, red in tooth and claw.” An animal may “win” by peaceably displacing its opponent at a feeding location. Sometimes a powerful carnivore opts not to attack because there is no motivation.

As an example, in 2014 a type of wild dog called a dhole faced off against a binturong, also known as a bearcat. Although the binturong can be smaller, it won this match because the night before, the dhole had gorged on babirusa. The gut passage time of wild canids is 24 to 48 hours, so she was still digesting when the battle occurred and had little incentive to fight and risk injury.

As the tournament plays out over several weeks, events in one round carry over into subsequent rounds. Injuries and illnesses take their toll. Sometimes an animal wrenches a knee or snaps a tooth, and just as we would see in nature, these events can send would-be champions plummeting toward defeat. And while many an excellent animal’s adaptive strategy is “He who runs or hides away, lives to graze another day,” such actions sadly constitute a forfeit in March Mammal Madness.

The ecology of a battle locale can also play a pivotal role. In early rounds, the higher-seeded species gets home court advantage. Once the tournament reaches the “Elite Trait,” “Final Roar” and Championship rounds, battle locations become randomized. Imagine an Antarctic-adapted leopard seal fending for itself in the Australian outback, and the ways in which species are adapted to their ecological niches become quickly apparent.

Plenty of competitors

Including this year’s entrants, over 250 species have competed in March Mammal Madness, representing Marine Mammals, Mighty Giants, Sexy Beasts, Fossil Taxa, Social Mammals and other groups. The 2015 competition included a Mythical Mammal division, which allowed tournament organizers to discuss human abstract thinking and how even mythical mammals reflect actual animals. For example, the aurochs – a type of wild cattle that went extinct in the 17th century – is thought to have inspired the legend of the Minotaur.

Each year underdogs and dark horses produce upsets, sometimes literally toppling their opponents. These twists give rise to conspiracy theories, and fans often pose detailed counterarguments to explain why battle outcomes, in their view, are unjust.

This year’s contest includes three new divisions: “Desert-Adapted” (including the bilby!), “Adjective Mammals” such as the clouded leopard and the burrowing bettong, and “Two Animals, One Mammal” such as the tiger quoll. Combatants who were serious contenders in 2013-2016 but lost unexpectedly are back this year in the “Coulda Shoulda” division for another run at mammalian glory.

Between tournaments, the organizing team stockpiles articles about cool species and awesome scientists, along with amazing videos. From these materials we develop cohesive divisions and determine species combatants in our version of Selection Sunday.

Caught you learning

This year over 200 educators – mainly middle and high school biology teachers – requested advance access to the bracket chart for lesson planning. This response suggests that at least 10,000 students will be playing March Mammal Madness this month. Teachers have told us that March Mammal Madness facilitates teaching about evolution, ecology and adaptation, and that the tournament format engages students who are typically less enthusiastic about science.

March Mammal Madness upends stereotypes of science as a dry, prescriptive discipline and shows that it can be creative and fun. Scientists talk about hypotheses and predictions, but fundamentally these are our imaginings about phenomena that are not yet known to determine what data to collect.

Beyond the classroom, we know from Twitter and personal testimonials that battle outcomes are regular water cooler fodder for museum staffers, scientists, families, artists, veterans and the after-work tavern crowd. Fans routinely cackle about wins and moan over losses. They also discover species they have never heard of and behaviors they couldn’t have imagined. Don’t underestimate this year’s 15th-seeded grasshopper mouse, a carnivorous rodent that stalks its prey and howls like a wolf.

Charon Henning, Author provided

As one nonscientist friend regularly quips, “You tricked me into learning… AGAIN!”

Producing March Mammal Madness is a team effort. More than 30 scientists, conservationists and enthusiasts have provided graphic design, web resources, photographs and battle narration. Scientific illustrator Charon Henning coordinates numerous tattoo artists to create original art of battle taxa.

This year’s contest starts on Monday, March 6 with a four-way battle for the wild card berth, so there’s still time to fill out those brackets. Find them at Katie Hinde’s blog, Mammals Suck … Milk!, and study up on the contestants at special portals created by Arizona State University and Oxford University Press. Then prepare to be delighted … and informed!

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