Ever idly wonder if a marmot could bring down an ant-eater? Would a fox be foxed by a badger? Could a badger out-badger a fox?
If these are among the questions keeping you awake at night, then March Mammal Madness is for you.
What’s March Mammal Madness? you say. Some kind of promotional discount offering two hippos for the price of one at your local Lidl/Target?
It is in fact a social media virtual combat tournament where spectators learn that it is not wise to bring a claw to a tusk fight.
The event dates back to 2013, and was founded by Katie Hilde, professor of human evolution at Arizona State University. Organisers pitch seemingly random animals against each other to see which would win in a fight. Running commentary plays out on Twitter and Facebook and a bit of research and random chance determines the winner of each battle.
With teachers, scientists, and students encouraged to download a wall chart, back their favoured beasties and see how they fare, the tournament kicks off with a kinda baboon matched against an Egyptian fruit bat.
Yes, this writer had to consult a popular internet search engine to find out if a kinda baboon was like a baboon but kinda different. But no, it’s a kind of baboon native to Congo and Zambia.
Fans of American sport might have noticed that the social media event is loosely based on the March Madness NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament, which encourages viewers to fill out brackets predicting which teams would triumph in a hypothetical head-to-head showdown.
In the mammalian version, though, it’s not a team but specific mammals. Winners are decided by a pool of academics who consider each species’ weaponry, armour, fight style, temperament/motivation, and any special skills and considerations to estimate the probability of the outcome. They also use a random number generator to help throw in upsets and unpredictability.
Those who want to know more can visit this Youtube feature, which involves talking glove puppets and low-budget production, all of which adds to the sense that the project is truly idiosyncratic and heart-warmingly bonkers.
The website even admits it is “janky and hard to navigate, why is it still like this? Oh you, know… reasons.”
In this vein, it is not just mammals who enter. Fans of The Octonauts might want to see a fury hydrothermal vent-dwelling yeti crab face off against an Aphrodite anthias (that’s a neon coloured fish). Yeah, why not? What the hell.
To offer Twitter updates, academic narrators are joined by geneticists offering side-facts based on research, and artists conjuring up imagery for each contest.
Professor Anne Stone, genetics professor at Arizona State University, leads the genetics team. She invited Dr Eduardo Guerra Amorim, a geneticist at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne, to help out last year. “It’s actually quite a lot of work,” he told The Register. “For each species, we need to find at least two papers that describe something related to genetics. If the species doesn’t die in the first round, we have to keep tweeting about them in the next round so we need to find more and more stuff about them.”
As well as providing research, Amorim takes part himself, setting out his own predictions in the provided brackets. Many of the academics do, he said, but they accept the battle outcomes.
“I have an idea, but I know that I’m not going to be 100 per cent correct,” he said. “But some of the kids that join in get very upset when their favourite species dies. We get a lot of complaints and people that are upset because of an outcome of a battle, but that’s part of the game.”
The serious point behind the rather silly project is education. It turns out that getting people, especially children, interested in science by building a narrative helps engage them more than regurgitating facts and figures. The team has even published a paper showing “how human psychological and cognitive adaptations for shared experiences, social learning, narrative, and imagery contribute to the widespread use of March Mammal Madness.”
The Twitter account for this year’s event already has more than 20,000 followers. With the world as it is – arguably a bit slow to react to a global pandemic and seemingly paralysed as climate change grips the planet – a bit of decent science education is no bad thing. ®