The Madness is nearly over

Recently the McAdam lab has been bitterly divided. Labbie turned on labbie as true colours were laid bare and loyalties put to the test. Truly, the fire of competition does not build character but reveal it. And we’ve been in involved in a tense competition as of late. Every March, as long limbs flow up and down the college basketball courts, another Madness grips a particular corner of the internet, and spills out into real life. A Madness of Mammals.



It all started in 2013, when the then Dr. Katie Hinde of Harvard University (now Prof. Hinde at Arizona State University: felt that the NCAA March madness tournament was not red in tooth and claw enough (actual history: What if it were a March Mammal Madness, and mammals big and small duked it out (or fled, or expired in mysterious circumstances) for title of greatest competitor of them all? And so she made it happen. Every year since then, bigger and better each time, Prof. Hinde gathers to Twitter a small army of biologists, co-narrators, artists and mostly importantly any member of the public whose heads are turned by the idea of mammalian combat. But of course no mammals really fight. Instead, based on extensive research into the ecology, physiology and behaviour of 65 (4 divisions of 16, with one position decided by a wild card round) entrants, fight outcomes are simulated, and gripping narrations penned. Outcomes depend on real characteristics, so the bigger, nastier, more toothy beasts tend to triumph, but an element of chance remains, and so upsets, Cinderella stories and outrageous scandals still occur every tournament. That, and the huge community that now produces a large quantity of facts, art, jokes, memes and alliances, keeps us coming back for more every year.

This year has been an interesting one, as for the first time March Mammal Madness has featured an entire division of non-mammals. The Orinoco crocodile has shredded all before it, but not before the common octopus suffocated a cookie cutter shark, the secretary bird stomped on all small critters in its path, and the tardigrade alt-advanced through the rounds (whatever the hell that means, Twitter is still hugely divided). Meanwhile, in the Urban mammal division, brackets were busted left, right and centre when the coyote slinked past #1 seed the Harar Hyena, thanks to a careless motorist and an unforgiving front bumper. Within this division we had one particular mammal dividing McLabbies, as the porcupine, picked by thistleswine lovers Erin & Jack, ransacked seedings to get past the Cape town baboon and the Berlin boar, much to the dismay of everyone else who had predicted the over-sized pin-cushion to go nowhere fast (bitter much, David?). Elsewhere, the pygmy hippo has squashed, trampled and chomped other mammals with Great Adaptations, and will face the coyote for a place in the final. Facing off against the crocodile to join the hippo or the coyote in the final is the winner of the Antecessors (early ancestors to mammals) division. Prompting much furious internet searches and approximations to extant mammals, this division featured beasts such as the Doedicurus (a huge tank of an armadillo-like monster), Homo floresiensis (an early dwarf hominid found on the island of Flores) and Andrewsarchus (a giant pig-like predator which was once thought to have been the largest mammalian land carnivore ever). Yet, none have been able to stand before the Ambelodon, (a massive shovel-tusked elephant-like behemoth) who may now be favourite to go all the way. However, an injury it sustained in defeating the Doedicurus may hinder it against the crocodile, so all bets are off.

I’m particularly pleased with this as I have the crocodile going all the way, a pretty controversial stance in a mainly-mammology lab. Folks just do not want to hear that just because it is furry does not mean it has got what it takes, mwahahaha. Ahem...

Smack talk aside, March Mammal Madness is a fantastic opportunity for connecting non-scientists and scientists. By tying these mammals to a sporting contest, Hinde et al have captured the attention of a huge audience that might otherwise not be interested in the conversation status of the Sumatran rhino (the winner in 2015), or the size of the Y chromosome of the fat-tailed dunnart (a tiny 4 genes!). Yet by following these mammals’ fortunes they find all these things out. A huge number of schools are sent material every year to allow students to follow the competition and for educators to make the most of this opportunity to teach kids about the weird and wonderful creatures all throughout the world. Hopefully, increasing the appreciation of all kinds of biodiversity by the general public will raise the importance of conserving the natural world in all walks of life. It gives scientists on Twitter the chance to have fun, and show they have a playful, funny, weird and ultimately downright human side. Finally, it breaks down barriers between scientists and non-scientists, and demonstrates they are all just people who also have strong feelings about felines (do not mention #CatScandal), a penchant for winding up old rivals (Bobcat vs gila monster anyone?), or irrational allegiances to walking acupuncture models (Leave the porcupine alone for heaven’s sake!).



So who will be crowned champion of March Mammal Madness 2018? Tune into @2018MMMletsgo on 2nd April for the semi-finals, and 4th April for the final, both 8:30pm Eastern Daylight Time, while following the hashtag “#2018MMM” for maximal madness. See you there!

- David F. (@DFofFreedom)