Jan Schaumann and his 10-year-old daughter, Ana, recently had an impassioned discussion about whether a mantis shrimp — a rainbow-hued and unusually violent bottom-dweller — could punch through an alligator snapping turtle’s shell.
Such a battle isn’t likely to happen in real life. But whether the Schaumanns picked the right winner could make or break their own chances of triumph in a four-week, bracket-based tournament this month — not the college basketball one, but a far more academic contest known as March Mammal Madness.
This tournament, founded by Arizona State University anthropologist Katie Hinde, pits pairs of animals against each other on an imaginary field of battle — and for the first time in its five-year history, the 2018 competition is open to non-mammals. In the opening match Monday, the preying mantis trounced the goldcrest bird. Other fights will feature a coyote duking it out with an opossum, a maned rat fighting a platypus and a secretary bird facing a horseshoe crab.
On its face, March Mammal Madness is pretty simple. Like the basketball tournament, it begins with a bracket of 64 competitors. Each creature is seeded according to its likelihood of victory. Bigger animals tend to get preference, so an elephant will enter the tournament at a much higher seed than a shrew. Predators also get a boost because a leopard would be more likely to win a bout against a slightly larger but less ferocious animal, such as a white-tailed deer.
Because it isn’t possible — or ethical — to gather dozens of species and force them to fight to the death, March Mammal Madness plays out on Twitter. Each night, the tournament’s organizers tweet out matches in gripping play-by-plays, deploying data garnered from actual scientific studies to give the audience an idea of how heavy, how fast or how deadly a certain species might be. Fans, who tend to be scientists or science students, follow #2018MMM to find out how their picks fare.
And just as in basketball, there are upsets. To keep things interesting, all battle outcomes are decided by a random number generator. So if organizers, who include an entomologist and a marine biologist, looked at all the scientific data and decided one animal had a 75 percent chance of beating another, the first would advance if the random number generator landed on anything between 1 and 75.
There are also surprises. Take the epic 2014 battle between a No. 11 seed, the adorable and puckish pangolin, and the 6th-seeded fossa, a lithe and formidable treetop predator from Madagascar. Pangolins don’t even have teeth, but they don’t need them. These insect-eating animals are coated in nearly impenetrable scales, and when confronted, they simply curl up into a ball of armor. This means a pangolin could stand a good shot of surviving an attack from a fossa, which makes its living hunting decidedly soft-bodied lemurs.
So when it came time for these two animals to do combat, many March Mammal Madness fans fired up Twitter expecting to see the beginnings of a Cinderella story. But it was not to be. Just moments after the fossa attacked the pangolin in the opening round, a poacher strolled into the bout and stuffed the pangolin in a sack. Unbeknown to many fans, a study published just days before had deemed pangolins, whose scales are used in sham traditional medicines, the world’s most-trafficked animal.
This deus ex fossina nearly led to a fan revolt, Hinde recalls.
“The pangolin-versus-fossa battle was four years ago, and people still bring it up,” said Hinde, a lactation researcher. “People were furious. And we were like, ‘Yeah, you should be furious. You should be furious that this is the most-trafficked animal!’ ”
As illustrated by the fossa-pangolin duel, followers can end up learning quite a bit about animals, biodiversity and conservation just by playing along. Scientific institutions have taken note. Since its start in 2013, the tournament has grown from a fun distraction into an event with big-time partners such as the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the American Society of Mammalogists. This year alone, Hinde said, she has received requests from more than 1,500 educators, from elementary school teachers to college professors, who are using the battle royal as a way to teach biology to some 120,000 students.
John S. Mead, the Eugene McDermott master teacher in science at St. Mark’s School of Texas, said his sixth-graders can’t get enough of March Mammal Madness.
“Kids who wouldn’t necessarily have been interested in most of these animals wind up getting sucked in in a way they don’t expect,” said Mead. “It becomes the big discussion at the lunch table in a way that doesn’t happen with other assignments.”
And because Mead is a writer for National Geographic’s Education Blog and will be posting his bracket there, it also gives his students a chance to best him in a public forum. Oh, and there will be extra credit for the winners.
Despite its fanciful theatrics and grounding in the virtual world, some fans take the animal battles extremely seriously. When they feel their favored species have been done wrong, Hinde said, they let organizers know about it.
For instance, some scientists say there’s a systematic bias against cats in the tournament. And to prove it, they have conducted regression analyses to show that felids get ousted earlier than similarly seeded animals from other taxonomic clades. These kitty-truthers can be found rallying behind their own hashtag: #catscandal.
“People love cats,” says Hinde. “It’s a very active lobbying arm of the fandom.”
This year, however, the cat people will probably take a back seat to an even bigger controversy — the inclusion of an entire group of non-mammals. Some die-hards will surely view the move as sacrilege. But Hinde, whose work centers on lactating mammals, says it will be worth it to attract scientists and followers who prefer sharks, salamanders, octopuses and crocodiles to the fuzzy animals our society holds most dear.
Among those rooting for non-mammals is Jan Schaumann, who is playing for the first time. Schaumann, who said he’s always been interested in animals, found out about March Mammal Madness from biologists he follows on Twitter. He took it as a welcome break from what he calls his usual feed of “bitter politics and cynical infosec news.”
He and Ana spent a few hours last week using Wikipedia and the occasional YouTube video to size up the contestants’ skills. They recalled some scenes from nature programs such as BBC’s “Planet Earth” — which famously featured a snakes versus iguana scene — to settle on their picks.
Ana is betting on the Doedicurus, an extinct giant armadillo-type creature. Schaumann, after much deliberation, opted to go for one of the egg-laying newcomers: “My money’s on the Komodo dragon.”