I’ve been a biology teacher for 28 years. Every year, I find myself looking at my curriculum with an eye toward how I can keep both a.) the content of my course fresh and b.) the delivery of that content enticing to a generation of young minds who are maturing in a world of social media, screens, and digital literacy. Add to this a very deep love of my alma mater’s basketball team (#GoDuke!) and you can see the potential for a great marriage of biological content AND competition come March.
Two years ago, as I was getting my feet wet in the Twittersphere, I became aware of an event that immediately hooked me. I discovered #MarchMammalMadness (MMM).
I informally shared MMM with my middle school students, and it was a total hit! Just being exposed to the final three rounds had my students eagerly pulling for (and independently researching) mammals they had previously never heard of. (By the way, the winner of the 2016 March Mammal Madness tournament was the tundra wolf.)
Last year, I let MMM catch me by surprise and did not have time to really prepare my students for the coolest example of “Participation Science” I know of. After the first round was over, I gave out brackets to my students for fun and they ran with it. Much like on Twitter, they gravitated toward certain competitors and pulled eagerly for them for reasons both sentimental as well as scientific. You can find my 2018 MMM bracket posted at the end of this article.
Among my student’s favorites were the Neanderthal hunting party (thanks to our study of human evolution earlier in the year), the ever-fearsome honey badger, and the quirky-looking saiga antelope. The excitement was palpable when the honey badger made it to the finals—only to lose to the short-faced bear.
This year I am READY!
Last week, I reached out to March Mammal Madness’ founder, Dr. Katie Hinde, and Dr. Marc Kissel, who joined up as a match narrator last year. I had great conversations with both of them and I am happy to share some of the details I learned so that you and the young scientists in your world can get the most from the 2018 version of March Mammal Madness!
What is March Mammal Madness?
For those of you puzzled as to what March Mammal Madness really is, let me explain.
March Mammal Madness was created in 2013 by Dr. Katie Hinde, now an associate professor at Arizona State University. The idea was to have a scientifically based competition among mammals that paralleled the NCAA basketball tournament.
Each year there are four themed brackets. In 2013, for instance, the brackets were Carnivores, Primates, Grazers/Browsers, and “Hodge Podge.” The winners of these brackets were elephant seal, gorilla, elephant, and warthog. Elephant defeated warthog for the inaugural championship. Every year since then, the brackets change. For example, 2017 featured “Adjective Mammals” (red squirrel v. maned wolf) “Coulda Shoulda” “Desert Adapted” (meerkat v. Gila monster) and “Two Animals One Mammal” (which included mammals such as the bear cat and spider monkey.)
But HOW are the matches decided?
I made certain to ask Dr. Hinde this and she explained that each combatant is extensively researched by the MMM team, and their physical characteristics are taken into account to create the seeding of each bracket. Each match has a certain probability that the higher seed will win. When the battle actually happens, a random number generator decides if the probability is met or not.
One of several “narrators” writes up the play-by-play of the battle, paying close attention to the science behind how each combatant behaves, given the location and timing of the battle. Results are then shared on the MMM Facebook page and on Twitter. Battle results are even scientifically footnoted for accuracy!
The 2017 Wildcard match-up was even acted out on video by members of the MMM team!
As the tournament progresses, the excitement level understandably increases.
Last year, Dr. Hinde tracked the hashtag of the tournament (#2017MMM) and calculated that tweets for the tournament accounted for 75.4 million views! Such an audience brought attention from the media—National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, and Scientific American. (Links to those are at the end of this post)
MMM Wants YOU!
Over the first five years of March Mammal Madness, it became clear that there was a huge connection to teachers and students of all ages.
In advance of the 2018 tournament, Dr. Hinde has generously offered teachers a chance to acquire the brackets, lesson plans, and other details in advance of the official March 1 “Bracket Drop” so that they might have time to prepare more effectively for the tournament.
This offer still stands for YOU at the MMM Website! Just supply your email and participate in the short survey. The initial survey from the first week of teacher sign-ups shows that there is strong and pretty equal interest in #2018MMM from all regions of the United States.
The initial teacher survey suggests that MMM brackets will be distributed to at least 50,000 students. I expect that involvement numbers will grow significantly as we get closer to the March 1 bracket reveal and the first battle on March 12.
The Early Bracket Request for Educators includes a TOP SECRET early copy of the bracket, a list of the scientific names of all the competitors, and resources that help guide in the planning of lessons for students. As an educator who got my materials recently, I am thankful that Dr. Hinde and the MMM team were willing to take the risk of making this public to educators before the official release date of March 1.
Please honor their kindness by keeping the brackets hush-hush until the official launch! I can tell you that there is a big surprise this year—one of the four brackets consists of non-mammals! You can bet this will prove controversial among the long-term aficionados of MMM!
For the general public, the brackets will go public on March 1 and you can learn how to play at Dr. Hinde’s Arizona State information page (https://libguides.asu.edu/MarchMammalMadness/HowToPlay). You can also find out more on the MMM Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Mammals.Suck/) or via the official Twitter account @ 2018MMMletsgo. If you spend time online in March you pretty much cannot avoid March Mammal Madness!
Bracketology – MMM Style
Like with the NCAA tournament, we all want to devise our PERFECT bracket. In my conversations with Dr. Hinde and Dr. Kissel, I asked what their approaches were and got two very different answers.
Dr. Kissel, a fan-turned-facilitator of MMM, uses an admittedly non-scientific “instinct model” in choosing his winners, while his preschool-aged daughter is a huge fan of going with the “cutest competitor should win” method. Dr. Kissel shared with me that while both methods are fun, neither has brought his family great MMM success so far. I would argue that fun IS a measure of success in MMM!
Dr. Hinde, on the other hand, has a decidedly more scientific take. If the mantra in real estate is “Location, Location, Location” she claims the key to success in MMM is “Ecology, Ecology, Ecology.” Knowing how competitors struggle or survive in various habitats is a critical factor in assessing each matchup. (Hey, that’s geography!!! -ed.)
Is a species likely to just leave the field of battle? Might it ignore its competitor? What about outside forces? Back in 2014, the pangolin, the world’s most highly trafficked mammal, was poached before its first-round battle and thus lost.
MMM is full of educationally fascinating twists and turns!
I am planning to share my bracket publicly with everyone via my @Evo_Explorer Twitter feed, as well as add it to this blog post after March 1. I’ll also be offering updates after each round!
MARCH 11 UPDATE – Here’s my official bracket – lots of tough choices here! My #FinalRoar has Doedicurus Vs Orinoco Crocodile and Cheetah vs Harar Hyena. The Hyena takes the title after besting Doedicurus in the finals. Good luck to everyone as we prepare to have fun battling through #2018MMM!
For a detailed history of how each of the previous tournaments played out, go to the March Mammal Madness Wikipedia page!
Please feel free to share your MMM experiences in the comments!
Media Coverage of Past MMM Tournaments
Caryl-Sue. 2017. Beyond March Mammal Madness. National Geographic Education Blog.
Ash, Summer. 2017. Mammals ‘Battle’ for Greatness in March Madness for Science Nerds. Gizmodo.
Harris, Adam. 2017. Meet the Professor Using March (Mammal) Madness to Draw Students to Science. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Lonsdorf, Kat. 2017. A New Kind Of March Madness Hits Schools. NPR Morning Edition
Petchesky, Barry. 2017 March Mammal Madness is the Only Bracket You Need. Deadspin.
Sohn, Emily. 2017. In March Mammal Madness, Our Money’s On The Giant Pouched Rat. NPR Goats and Soda.
Friedman, Nicole. 2016. Have a Weasel in Your Bracket? Fans Go Mad for Mammals. Wall Street Journal.
Todd, Sarah. 2016. If you don’t care about March Madness, try brackets about mammals and books instead. The Quartz.
Cole, Adam. 2015. Could A Quokka Beat A Numbat? Oddsmakers Say Yes. NPR Morning Edition.
Brotman, Barbara. 2015. Mammal March Madness is beloved animal version of NCAA championship. Chicago Tribune.
Manaster, Joanne. 2013. Mammal March Madness! Learn About Animal Competition in the Wild! Scientific American.
In Talking Evolution, teacher and science communicator John Mead brings evolution and biogeography “down to earth” with practical ideas for classrooms and learning networks.