March Mammal Madness pits animals against each other in theoretical combat — for science | CBC Radio

March Mammal Madness pits animals against each other in theoretical combat — for science | CBC Radio

The Current10:59Critters face off in March Mammal Madness

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In the real world, a wolverine would probably never meet an emperor penguin in the wild.

But in the March Mammal Madness tournament, not only do these magnificent creatures engage in combat, they do so on a beach in Oregon — a habitat neither animal is familiar with.

“People were really, really excited,” said the contest’s creator Katie Hinde, a biological anthropologist at Arizona State University.

Created in 2013, the bracket pits 64 different animals against each other, using biological research to determine what would happen if an individual from one species met an individual from another species.

Hinde, herself a basketball fan, was inspired by the NCAA March Madness tournament, as well as an unscientific cutest animal bracket she came across a decade ago.

“That first year in 2013, people got way into [March Mammal Madness],” she told The Current‘s Matt Galloway. “People were really excited. A whole bunch of scientists had questions like, ‘What are these numbers next to the animals?'”

“So I got to write an FAQ about what a seeding is, and really integrate these areas of my life: spectator sports and natural history science.”

The bracket has since grown from something she thought “my mom might play” to one with nearly 34,000 followers on Twitter, an organizing team featuring scientists and conservationists, and “live” tweets of each match as if it was going on in real time.

The theoretical matchups are fun, but for Hinde, the key takeaway from March Mammal Madness is educating people about the animal kingdom and biology.

“Points are just a score, but in March Mammal Madness, if you’re learning, you’re winning,” she said.

Making the bracket

Each year, Hinde and the organizing team choose 64 animals, split into four groups of 16. Each group has a distinct feature that unites the animals, from scientific traits such as their eating habits and whether they’re desert- or cold-adapted, to more quirky things like their names.

A dove which was freed by children with Pope Francis during his Angelus prayer, is attacked by a black crow at the Vatican. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The brackets usually square individuals from each species against each other. But sometimes, exceptions are made.

“We have these really funny quirks in the English language called animal collectives,” she said. “So you can think about, like, a murder of crows or a sleuth of bears.

“So we created a division based on those phrases, some of which date back 500 years.”

It’s a chance to kind of go through the kaleidoscope of the natural world.-Katie Hende, biological anthropologist

That was in 2022, and the numbers game proved advantageous: a pride of lionesses defeated a lone orca in the final.

But more combatants don’t always guarantee victory.

“Linguists aren’t always good with natural history, and so they put animals in collective that never really choose to be social,” she said.

“So you could talk about how the animals might not co-operate and they’d actually turn on each other rather than have a kind of battle in this kind of alternate universe of what would happen.”

A close-up of a Wolverine mid-movement.
The wolverine is one of the four contestants remaining the 2023 March Mammal Madness bracket. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

The science of combat

To determine the winner of a match, Hinde and her research team take things like a creature’s temperament, diet, size and fighting style into account.

It also factors into how they’re seeded on the bracket. For example, the pride of lionesses was the top seed in 2022’s mammal collectives division.

“It’s a chance to kind of go through the kaleidoscope of the natural world,” she said.

Although it’s very difficult to know how some animals would react to others, Hinde and the researchers try to make educated guesses about how combat will play out.

In the case of the wolverine vs. emperor penguin duel — a match-up from this year’s “dad bods” division — the wolverine was fresh off of devouring a greater rhea (a large flightless bird similar to an ostrich) in the last round, so it wasn’t motivated to hunt the penguin.

Although the emperor penguin has no major terrestrial predators, scientists have found that it will start flapping its wings when a foreign object comes within 20 metres of it.

“[The] wolverine [was] kind of slowly jogging over to see what this thing is that it’s never seen before,” she said. “They’re quite curious carnivores.”

“Eventually, the wolverine got close enough that the emperor penguin’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to peace out.’ And it walked into the ocean and swam away … and wolverine won without a scratch.”

There’s an element of luck in every match-up, too. After estimating each combatant’s chances of winning, a random number generator is used to determine the result. Additionally, randomly chosen environments in the final three rounds could help or hinder a combatant.

Hinde said that this year, more than 6,500 teachers from across the world are using March Mammal Madness to teach their students to think critically about the animal kingdom.

“All of a sudden, these kids are arguing from evidence of natural history, to talk about how animals are adapted to their environments, what happens when they’re moved out of those environments, and how our natural world is this amazing, incredible thing full of creativity and imagination,” she said.

Produced by Alison Masemann.

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