April 5, 2016
By Joannah Rivera
As March comes to a close, college basketball fans around the country find themselves cheering for the Tar Heels, Wildcats, Sooners or Orange. However, thanks to the new take on the yearly “March Madness” tournament, biologists around the country find themselves rooting for Giant Pandas and Mole Rats.
Biology Professor Christopher Anderson, and four other biologists across the country, have worked together to create their own take on “March Madness,” called “Mammal March Madness”.
The unique take NCAA’s “March Madness,” is running in its fourth year.
The first tournament of MMM took place in 2013 and was inspired by a BuzzFeed article titled, Animal March Madness.
“My friend Katie (Hinde) was online and looked at a BuzzFeed article,” Anderson said. “It was an animal bracket of 16 mammals based on cuteness and she thought ‘this is lame’. She was unimpressed by this specific aspect [and] the fact that there was no science in it.”
Hinde took BuzzFeed’s idea and expanded on it. She created her own bracket that included 65 mammals. She laid out a three-week tournament that took place over Twitter and, most importantly, she added her scientific expertise.
“Katie tried to take it on all by herself that year,” Anderson said. “I was following along on Twitter and I thought I’d do a little bit of research on some of these species and start to feed her some thoughts.”
Anderson along with Katie Hinde of Arizona State University, Kristi Lewton of University of Southern California and Josh Drew of Columbia University, use their expertise to make MMM fun and informative.
Anderson has been involved in the tournament since 2013 and Lewton and Drew joined along in 2014.
“It was our inaugural year,” Anderson said. “Then we started to build our audience.”
The bracket includes four themed divisions of mammals. “Chill Mammals”, mammals which are cold adapted, “Mighty Giants”, mammals that are typically large for the species or have “giant” in their names, “Mascot Mammals”, for example, the University of Wisconsin Badgers or the West Point Mules, and finally, the “Mammals of the Nouns”, mammals that have some sort of noun in their name, i.e. the otter of the sea or the porcupine of the gape.
At the very beginning of MMM, the four biologists come together and have a “Selection Sunday” of sorts to determine all the outcomes ahead of time.
“It’s not just based on people’s votes,” Anderson said. “We actually go in and do the background research to determine what we think would be the likelihood of one specific animal beating another.”
Each mammal is assigned a number (1-16) based on its rank in the division. For example, the Giant Panda is the biggest of the Mighty Giants; therefore it is ranked at number one. The Giant Mole Rat, on the other hand, is much smaller, so it is ranked at number 15.
Though some animals have a much greater chance at winning a certain encounter, a dice roll decides the outcomes.
For all intents and proposes, a giant mole rat could potentially beat a giant panda. This would be referred to as an “upset”.
“We argue amongst ourselves about the probabilities and then let the dice roll determine who actually comes out on top,” Anderson said.
The entire tournament is live tweeted on Twitter and participants from all over the globe are encouraged, but not required, to share their experiences on Twitter as well.
“Twitter is so interactive and so participatory,” Anderson said. “We host the conversation but there are so many other participants in the biological science community that volunteer information. We do the play by play and then everyone else provides color commentary.”
MMM has gained much coverage over the past few years. They have been a trending Twitter hash tag, featured in the ‘Wall Street Journal’, the ‘Chicago Tribune’, the ‘Washington Post’, WBEZ and most recently, ‘Nature News’.
Since 2013, Mammals Suck, the blog that compounds all MMM information, has gone from 30,000 blog hits to 168,000.
MMM participants range from instructors to families to individuals to museums.
“We get participation from local museums” Anderson said. “The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Harvard Natural History Museum as well as the Duke Lemur Center have been active participants on Twitter. I’d love to get the Field Museum involved.”
Cirque Du Rouge, a tattoo shop located in Washington D.C., has created illustrations for all of the 65 mammals on the bracket.
This year, the MMM champion was the Tundra Wolf.