Could A Quokka Beat A Numbat? Oddsmakers Say Yes

Mar 6, 2015
Originally published on March 28, 2015 6:05 pm

It's March, and that means college basketball fans are gearing up for the NCAA tournament. But there's another tournament taking place this month — and animals aren't the mascots, they're the competitors.

"Mammal March Madness" is organized by a team of evolutionary biologists. They choose 65 animal competitors and then imagine the outcome of a series of simulated interspecies battles. Who would win if a kangaroo took on a warthog? Or if an orca fought a polar bear?

Harvard evolutionary biology professor Katie Hinde is the tournament's founder. In 2013, she came across a post about a tournament of animals on Buzzfeed titled "Animal March Madness."

"I was like, 'Oh, this is going to be great,' " Hinde says. "I loved watching the basketball March Madness tournament."

But she was disappointed by Buzzfeed's take.

"It was only 16 species — March Madness is 64," Hinde says. "And it was whichever species was the cutest. There's no science to that!"

So she pulled out her encyclopedia of mammals, created her own tournament and posted the bracket online.

"Over the weekend it blew up," Hinde says.

So many people were excited about her animal Battle Royale that Hinde has organized a new tournament every year since. She and three colleagues dive deep into the scientific literature to assess each competitor's strengths and weaknesses: their body mass, fight style, armor, weaponry, temperament and ability to function in different environments.

Then they use all that information to invent a detailed play-by-play account of the entire tournament. Some chance is incorporated so, just like in basketball, there can be upsets.

All through March, they post transcripts of each matchup on Twitter (#2015MMM), complete with color commentary about each competitor's love life and favorite foods, as well as human threats to its survival.

"It's become this incredible vehicle for teaching about science, natural history and conservation," Hinde says.

Last year thousands of people filled out brackets and followed the action; many formed betting pools. This year's lineup was announced on Tuesday. It's got some heavy hitters — like the elephant seal and a prehistoric beast called a Hell Pig — but there are some potential Cinderella stories, too. Take the Javan slow loris, an adorable, wide-eyed primate.

"He's a little guy ... but he packs a bite," Hinde says.

The loris coats its teeth with a noxious secretion from glands in its arms.

"So when it bites, it can actually trigger an allergic reaction," Hinde says, "and in some species, apparently, it can cause anaphylactic shock.

Could that secret weapon give the slow loris an advantage in the first round, when it faces the Iberian lynx? That would be an upset for the ages.


The first battle of Mammal March Madness (a wild card match between the pygmy jerboa and the bumblebee bat) takes place on Monday, March 9 — so fill out your bracket before then! You can follow NPR's coverage of the tournament at skunkbear.tumblr.com.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We are in a month that can hardly be thought of without the word madness attached. It all began with the NCAA tournament and its brackets, and now we are crazy in all kinds of ways. This month brings a tournament involving animals, not as mascots, but as competitors. It's Mammal March Madness. A team of evolutionary biologists imagine the results of simulated interspecies battles. Who would win if, say, a kangaroo took on a warthog or an orca fought a polar bear? NPR science reporter Adan Cole got the scoop and this year's bracket.

ADAN COLE, BYLINE: Harvard biology professor Katie Hinde started thinking about Mammal March Madness in 2013 when she saw a post about a tournament of animals on Buzzfeed.

KATIE HINDE: And I was like, oh, this is going to be great. I loved watching the basketball March Madness tournament.

COLE: But she found Buzzfeed's take disappointing.

HINDE: It was only 16 species, right, March Madness is 64. And it was whichever species was the cutest, which was - there's no science to that.

COLE: So she pulled out her encyclopedia of mammals, created her own tournament and posted the bracket online.

HINDE: Over the weekend it blew up.

COLE: So many people got excited about her animal battle royal that Hinde has organized a new tournament every year since. She and three colleagues pick a few dozen species to compete and then they dive deep into the scientific literature to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

HINDE: Their body mass, their fight style, their armor, their weaponry.

COLE: And they use all that information to make up a detailed play-by-play of the entire tournament. All through March they post transcripts of each matchup on Twitter, complete with color commentary about the animals' love lives, favorite foods and human threats to their survival.

HINDE: It's become this incredible vehicle for teaching about conservation.

COLE: Last year, thousands of people filled out brackets, formed betting pools and followed the action. This year's lineup was announced on Tuesday. It's got some heavy hitters, like the elephant seal and a prehistoric beast called a hell pig, but there are some potential Cinderella stories, too. Take the Javan slow loris, an adorable wide-eyed primate.

HINDE: He's a little guy, but he packs a bite.

COLE: The loris coats its teeth with a noxious secretion from glands in its arms.

HINDE: And so when it bites it can actually, in some species, apparently, can cause anaphylactic shock.

COLE: Could that secret weapon give the slow loris an advantage in the first round when it faces the Iberian lynx, a fierce meat-loving predator? That would be an upset for the ages. You can follow the tournament and get your own 2015 Mammal March Madness bracket at NPR's science blog skunkbear.tumblr.com. Adam Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.