Could A Quokka Beat A Numbat? Oddsmakers Say Yes

March 6, 2015

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 inter-species 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 post 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 weakness: 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, 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 9th — so fill out your bracket before then! You can follow NPR’s coverage of the tournament at skunkbear.tumblr.com.

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