By Jason Carter
Athleticism, intelligence, teamwork, grace, agility. These words could easily describe the dedicated Bulldog basketball players of UNC-Asheville, now seeded number 15 in the men’s and number 14 in the women’s NCAA championship tournament. They also describe many of the competitors in the March Madness I will be glued to - Mammal March Madness! Now in its fourth year, Mammal March Madness pits species from around the globe against each other in imagined battles to the death (or forfeit) to determine which species will reign supreme.
Created four years ago by primatologist Katie Hinde, who also writes the blog Mammals Suck . . . Milk, the competition brings together scientists and the general public to play along with matches between a variety of animals. She, along with three other biologists, design a March Madness bracket of mammals in four divisions. 2016 features mammals of cold climates, mascots, giants, and mammals of the noun (a wordplay in which mammals like the mountain goat can be written as goat of the mountain). Each of the 16 species in a division is seeded, just like a college basketball team. The number one seed plays the number 16, number two fights number 15, and so on. The seeds are determined through thorough research of scientific literature, focusing on each animal’s adaptations and abilities to fight and defend itself.
Once the bracket is set, the four biologists then give each animal a percent outcome of winning based on their research. For example, number one seed polar bear was given a 99% chance of defeating number 16 seed the lemming. To determine the winner of the battle, a 100-sided die is rolled. For the previously mentioned battle, if a 1-99 is rolled, the polar bear wins; a 100 rolled means success for the lemming. This randomization does allow for upsets, just like in the NCAA March Madness. One of the biggest upsets so far this year occurred when the #13 badger defeated the #4 mountain lion. This ruined many a fan’s bracket.
Rather than just report the winners, the scientists cleverly live tweet the battles, filling the dialog with facts, photos, humor, video clips, and many pop culture references. Each battle is narrated as if it actually happened, like when the swamp wallaby slammed a volcano rabbit like a rugby ball. Using the hashtag #2016mmm, others join in the trash talk as well. Thousands are following the battles each night, adding their own facts, memes, and video clips to the discussion.
This year, I have invited my middle school students to participate, filling in brackets and following along as the battles are posted. We update scores, discuss the battles, and follow along to many of the facts and video clips. This has become an engaging tool for students to explore issues of climate change, genetics, and natural selection. According to creator Hinde, “A lot of people think of science as dry and dusty and memorization of a lot of facts. What it really is is one of the most creative things you can do. You have to think and imagine things about the world in order to design the studies we do. This is an opportunity for us to celebrate the imagination of science.”
As a tool for communicating science, students are engaged in social media in a positive way and see twitter and other platforms as more than just a place for posting selfies. Instead, they witness people of the science community using it to both have fun and learn at the same time. On of my students’ favorite parts of this year’s tournament is an obsession by those following to measure every species in “stoats.” A stoat is a small weasel species found in England, and one of the scientists writing the battles jokingly referred to a volcano rabbit as weighing 2.5 stoats. Now every species is introduced in kilostoats, millistoats, etc.
Students are also building crucial vocabulary skills, like altricial, sympatric, and ungulate. This tournament is demonstrating how the context of science can be influenced by social media into a dynamic and fun learning tool for communication. Students come in each morning with new information about their favorite species in the tournament or some connection in their own learning to the mammals in the competition. I have overheard numerous debates in the hallway about why the porcupine is so much stronger than an anteater or how it will be possible for the tiny polecat to defeat a mountain goat. In class, we also have meaningful conversations about the anthropocene epoch and the true extent of how humans are affecting these species.
Currently, the tournament is in round two. More than 25% of the students are doing better than me with their brackets and enjoy letting me know this, teaching me humility while I defend my bracket choices. I am usually one who likes a good underdog, but this year I am sticking to a number one seed going all the way - #TeamPolarBear!