March Mammal Madness Wants To Hear You Roar

11:18 minutes

a really adorable family of foxes with very large bat-shaped ears in a sandy terrain
A lovely family of bat-eared foxes. Credit: Shutterstock

When mid-March rolls around, your news online—and maybe your conversations with friends and colleagues—can sometimes get taken over by discussions about the tournament. From debating your bracket selections to conversations about last night’s matchup, or celebrating big upsets and debating whether this is finally the year the bat-eared fox goes all the way, it can feel all-consuming.

March Mammal Madness is an exercise in science communication involving a 64-animal bracket and nightly simulated combat matchups between animals—where the outcomes are determined by chance and specific species traits found in the scientific literature. This is the 10th year of the tournament, which this month has some 650,000 students around the world predicting battle outcomes on the road to the Elite Trait, the Final Roar, and the championship match.

Dr. Katie Hinde, a biological anthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, and ringleader of March Mammal Madness, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the keys to success in the tournament. Want to participate yourself? It’s not too late—you can find the tournament bracket and more information about March Mammal Madness on the ASU Libraries site. 

Segment Guests

Katie Hinde

Dr. Katie Hinde is co-organizer of March Mammal Madness, and a biological anthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Segment Transcript

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You know how it is when March rolls around. Your news online and maybe your conversations with friends and colleagues suddenly get all wrapped up in discussions about the tournament, your bracket, who won last night, the big upsets, whether this is the year the bat-eared fox goes all the way. Yep. I’m talking about March Mammal Madness, an exercise in science communication involving a 64-animal bracket and nightly simulated combat matchups between animals.

This is the 10th year of the tournament. And joining me now to talk about it is Dr. Katie Hinde. She’s a biological anthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University but she’s also the ringleader of March Mammal Madness. Welcome to “Science Friday,” Dr. Hinde.

KATIE HINDE: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to talk about our tournament.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Walk me through the process here. How does the tournament work in a nutshell?

KATIE HINDE: We release a bracket of 64 species. And players are asked to predict who they think is going to go all the way to become champion of that year’s tournament. The animals are presented in different divisions which may reflect aspects of their adaptations or how they’re named. And so scientist narrators, who are experts in animal behavior, and biology, and ecosystems basically craft a play by play story of what would happen if individuals of these two species were to encounter each other in a particular habitat. And they tell that play by play using the scholarly scientific literature but in a way that is a dynamic , suspenseful story.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So you mentioned the home court advantage here. What about when you have two competitors who just they would never encounter in nature? They have very different lifestyles. I’m thinking like orca versus some monkey that lives in the treetops.

KATIE HINDE: So in the first three rounds, the better seeded combatant gets home habitat advantage. And what we do, generally, is we create, through March Mammal Madness magic, we transport the visiting combatant into that environment. And we tend to do this in ways that are not exceedingly cruel. We don’t typically transport a combatant to the deep sea under extreme pressure, typically, but we come up with some kind of scenario where there’s either a forfeit, which of course makes people fairly grumpy.

So one time we had some deep sea vent crabs that basically grow their food source by waving their pinchers over hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. And that crab was so busy doing that it didn’t actually enter the magic portal to go to where it was supposed to have its encounter with another animal. So we use a lot of literary narrative devices to tell an exciting story. We have 64 battles that we have to present and we use a variety of different kinds of scenarios.

But sometimes we will do things where an arboreal creature all of a sudden is on the ground. That’s going to be very challenging for that animal’s cognition and adaptations. And their immediate motivation is going to be to try and get somewhere. So that’s going to shape their behavioral response. A lot of animals actually run away in our encounters because animals have adaptations to not fight. Right. Fighting is generally a device of last resort in nature because, even for the winners, there’s a risk of injury or it’s a waste of time and energy that is better allocated to more productive activities.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Right. So just to be clear, this is not a popularity contest, right? People are not voting on which they prefer. This is based on the traits that each of these species would have if they were to encounter each other.

KATIE HINDE: Absolutely. Yes. And there is no voting because that tends to always favor the combatants that are most familiar or is not really predicated on the underlying science of those animals’ adaptations. Now I do want to be clear that there are upsets. We do have at times improbable outcomes.

And this happens because the team that puts the tournament together, we calculate in an encounter who’s probably going to win. Now it might be that there’s a predation event, predator-prey dynamic. There could be displacement at a waterhole among herbivores. There’s lots of ways that animals interact in nature. And so we estimate that probability.

And then we use a random number generator to actually determine the outcome. And sometimes the really improbable outcome is what that random number generator gives us back. And that’s always kind of hilarious because you’re like, oh my gosh, how am I going to craft that play by play story? And this is actually I think part of the real celebratory community based cheering and jeering and suspense of the tournament because we then go into the scholarly literature and natural history and look for some kind of scenario that’s evidence-based, even if improbable, to explain something that might happen.

So I think a big example of this last year was the championship battle was between a grandma orca and a pride of lionesses. And in the advanced rounds, we no longer have what is necessarily home habitat advantage. The environment is randomized among four possible battle locations. In this particular scenario, orca came out to the championship, pride of lionesses came out to the championship, and they had to fight in a kelp forest, you know seawater, but the random number generator is like, and the pride of lionesses wins.

And I remember like looking around at the team and being like, so who wants to help me write this one? And folks are like, no, I think you got this.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: OK. Just want to remind folks they’re listening to “Science Friday” from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with Dr. Katie Hinde about the March Mammal Madness tournament. You can find links on how to participate on our website, sciencefriday.com/mammalmadness.

So looking at the brackets for March Mammal Madness, I don’t know how to say this, but they’re not all mammals.

KATIE HINDE: You’re absolutely correct. In 2018, we introduced a division of all nonmammals. And the joke was that the other organizers, Chris Anderson, who’s an entomologist, and Josh Drew, who’s a marine scientist that works on fish, that they snuck behind my back and made a division of nonmammals. And it was wonderful because there’s a lot of really neat animal adaptations outside mammals.

And since the second year, we’ve always featured occasional nonmammal species but we’ve, in recent years, become much more systematic about featuring organisms from across the tree of life. We’ve even started having plants or other kinds of complex neutrals like lichen. And we want to use the tournament as an opportunity to celebrate life on Earth and all these amazing adaptations, how they’ve been shaped by natural selection and evolutionary processes over long periods of time. and by expanding beyond mammals, we’re able to just talk about so much more of the kaleidoscope of life on planet Earth.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You’re 10 years in. How many people are participating in the tournament this year?

KATIE HINDE: That’s a great question. We don’t necessarily track participation. We don’t track how many people download the bracket, things like that. But we do know that one of our big user groups are educators in classrooms. And from them, we’ve learned that over 6,500 educators are using March Mammal Madness with their 675,000 learners.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Wow. So the organizers, you must have favorites. Do you ever get tempted just to rig things so that this year the red panda is definitely going to come out on top?

KATIE HINDE: Oh, I stopped filling out a bracket year or two to try and prevent that kind of fingers on the scales. We generally want it to have suspense and excitement. And like one example I think was a couple of years ago, the championship battle was going to come down to the red kangaroo versus the harpy eagle. And that was really exciting. That was the furthest that a nonmammal had ever gotten.

We’re all big fans of the harpy eagle. We’re also fans of the red kangaroo. But it was really exciting. And we used the random number generator and it came back and it said kangaroo. And we’re like, ah. And one of the other organizers was like, let’s do two out of three. Best two out of three. And we ran the random number generator again and it basically came back with, did I stutter, kangaroo.

So it’s a really exciting process. And oftentimes, when there’s an outcome that’s not necessarily your heart’s dream or your favorite species, it’s really fun to go into the literature and find a way to make the other combatant, the other species, the hero. Every year during these weeks of the tournament as a scholar, as a scientist, as a biologist, as an anthropologist, it’s magical to just steep myself deeply in the natural history literature and find out about animals that I otherwise never would have read 10 articles about that now I get to do that because I have to have a story about how this critter meets this other critter. And it’s a really wonderful celebration of science and nature in a way that I think we don’t get to do as often as academics.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So we’re nearing the end of the second round. People can still get involved. But any predictions? Where’s the smart money this year?

KATIE HINDE: Ooh. Yeah. We’ve got some really great divisions this year. We’ve got a division of species where dads do primary care of young. So we’ve got a division of dad bods. And there’s an emperor penguin, greater rhea, which is related to ostriches and emus, and wolverine are the top three seeds in that division. People are very excited about them.

We also have a division of mighty stripes. And these are mammal species that have stripes. And in that division there are some really cool hoofed mammals. Okapi is in that division as the number one seed. And she’s going to be tough. She’s a big lady. And she’s quite good at defending herself in a variety of habitats.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So keep your eye on the okapi. Got it.


CHARLES BERGQUIST: Dr. Katie Hinde is the ringleader of March Mammal Madness. You’ll find links on how to participate on our website at sciencefriday.com/mammalmadness. She’s also a biological anthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. Thanks so much for talking with me today.

KATIE HINDE: Thank you so much for having me. This has been wonderful.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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