March Mammal Madness Offers Scientific Take on Hoops Hysteria

If your interest in Wildcats, Wolverines, and Razorbacks has nothing to do with college basketball, give March Mammal Madness a shot.
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  • A variation on the NCAA basketball tournament, March Mammal Madness features battles between animals.
  • Housed at Arizona State University, the science-based contest serves as a teaching tool in K-12 and college classrooms.
  • Battle descriptions are playful yet rooted in the scientific literature.
  • The 2023 tournament kicks off on March 13.

While filling out your NCAA March Madness bracket, you may be supremely confident picking a winner between Kansas and Gonzaga.

But how would you feel about the Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker versus the Peacock Wrasse? Or a Rock Hyrax versus a Pygmy Jerboa?

That's the challenge of March Mammal Madness, a 64-creature battle royale that, at least in scientific circles, has become about as popular as the hoops tournament. Housed at Arizona State University and celebrating its 10th year, the annual event engages hundreds of thousands of participants and serves as a creative classroom teaching tool around the world.

Here's some background to get you primed for the 2023 competition.

The Evolution of March Mammal Madness

If you're a fan of filling out brackets but aren't exactly into college hoops, you can find plenty of alternatives to March Madness. How about a competition on favorite ways to prepare a potato?

Or how about the cutest animals? That's what Katie Hinde encountered in 2013, when, as an assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, she was determined to approach this task with a more scientific bent.

"I went to my office and pulled down my 'Encyclopedia of Mammals' and made up my own bracket," she later told The Harvard Gazette. "I put it online, thinking that maybe my mom would play, and it just exploded."

Exploded, indeed. What began as a post on Hinde's blog — "Mammals Suck … Milk!" — has morphed into an international phenomenon.

While it's impossible to know exactly how many people play March Mammal Madness, it's safe to say its popularity has grown considerably. Last year, the tournament's website attracted more than 750,000 visitors, Anali Maughan Perry, head of Open Science and Scholarly Communication at the Arizona State University Library, told BestColleges.

That's up from roughly 90,000 five years ago, she said.

Many are educators. About 6,500 teachers are using this year's tournament as instructional tools in their classroom, involving some 660,000 students worldwide, Perry noted.

"We have everyone from K-12 students through lifelong learners using March Mammal Madness," she said.

Michael Cramer is among them. An assistant director of the University of Notre Dame's Environmental Research Center, Cramer has students in his mammalogy classes fill out brackets as an assignment.

"They get extra credit if they make smart choices," Cramer told BestColleges.

Cramer has used March Mammal Madness as a teaching tool for seven or eight years, he said. Some of his students come prepared, having participated in the tournament while in high school.

Perhaps it's no surprise these students landed in his mammalogy class.

"It's definitely bringing people in and generating interest in STEM fields," Cramer said.

How March Mammal Madness Works

Similar to the college basketball version, March Mammal Madness seeds 64 competitors in a single-elimination tournament. One-seeds play 16-seeds, 2-seeds play 15-seeds, and so forth.

But there are some differences. During the early rounds, the higher-seeded animals enjoy home-habitat advantage. So if a Beluga Whale battles a Polar Bear, having the contest either in the sea or on land will influence the outcome. During the later rounds — Elite Trait, Final Roar, and the Championship — animals battle within four predetermined ecologies.

Last year, for example, the championship round pitted a Grandma Orca against a Pride of Lionesses in a kelp forest, with the lions emerging victorious, cutting down the nets, and donning celebratory T-shirts.

To add a bit of unpredictability and intrigue, contest organizers use a random number generator when determining the outcome of each battle. If they calculate that a higher-seeded animal has, say, a 95% chance of winning and the random number exceeds 95, then the lower seed will win.

So upsets happen. In 2020, the seventh-seeded Gopher Tortoise made it all the way to the Final Roar.

"They made it very far for a tortoise," Mauna Dasari, who serves as one of the tournament's "scientist-narrators," told BestColleges.

That said, a 1- or 2-seed has won every tournament to date. Bear that in mind while filling out this year's bracket.

And to help you fill out that bracket, the ASU Library offers plentiful learning resources, including information about each combatant and the random habitats, tips for educators, an archive of previous tournaments, and even a customized March Mammal Madness Spotify playlist.

When the tournament begins, each round plays out in real time on Twitter (follow #2023MMM for this year's contest and #MMMletsgo for all things March Mammal Madness), accompanied by over-the-top memes and pop-culture references.

Heated conversations ensue, with participants dissecting the finer points of each battle while museums and experts from the scientific community offer photos and fun facts, Cramer explained.

"And then there are those of us who are just there to make stupid jokes and root for our favorite species," he added.

Despite the tournament's name, not all species are mammals.

"The tournament likes to highlight not just the animals themselves but our living world around us," Perry said. "By expanding outside of just mammals, we're able to talk about full ecosystems and the different roles creatures play in the sustainability of our environments."

Before the tournament begins, Hinde and fellow organizers — a team of scientists and artists from various universities and organizations — predetermine the outcome of each battle by considering weaponry, armor, fight style, temperament/motivation, and special skills, the website says, along with habitat advantages.

They then offer play-by-play analyses that "rely on empirical evidence from the scientific literature," as a 2021 eLife article on March Mammal Madness points out. The description of last year's championship finale, for instance, features a dozen scientific citations.

Those who may be squeamish about animals waging battle, even in a hypothetical sense, can take heart in knowing that some contests don't constitute life-and-death struggles. Sometimes the winner simply displaces its opponent at a feeding location, the ASU website notes, while in other cases an animal doesn't attack because it lacks motivation.

"If it's round three or four and a carnivore is losing, it's likely they're full because they've eaten everyone else along the way," Dasari explained. "We try to incorporate that sort of continuity throughout the tournament."

Still, there's a certain gladiator-in-the-arena feel to March Mammal Madness given its Darwinian premise.

"A lot of people are always clamoring for carnage …," Hinde said in a YouTube video. "And then you'll have the gruesome demise of some sweet animal and people are like, 'Not like that.'"

What's New for the 2023 Tournament

For 2023, March Mammal Madness offers some novel twists.

Animals will compete in four new divisions: Mighty Stripes, Animal Engineers, Dad Bods (those that provide parental care to their young), and Itty Bitty Comeback City (returning small combatants that "exited the tournament early, often due to their diminutive bite size," according to Hinde).

Get ready for ferocious fisticuffs featuring Chequered Elephant Shrews and Fire-Footed Rope Squirrels, Itjaritjaris and Colo Colo Opossums, and Montezuma Oropendolas and Three-Spined Sticklebacks.

Our random habitats for this year include the Tropical Rainforest, Subtropical Desert, Ephemeral Wetland, and the Ghost Forest (places where forests have died).

You can find the 2023 bracket here. Or, if you prefer Latin binomial names — Dactylopsila Trivirgata, for instance, or Symphalangus Syndactylus — try this one.

The Wild Card play-in game, pitting a Shrew Mole against a Bumblebee Bat to see who advances to face the top-seeded Sea Otter, is scheduled for March 13. The first round begins March 15.

We can only hope next year's tournament brings back Mascot Mammals, a category introduced in 2016. College mascots included the Haverford Squirrel, the Naval Academy Goat, the Texas A&M-Kingsville Javelina, and the Schoolcraft College Ocelot, among others. The Howard Bison advanced to the Final Roar, where it lost to the Giant Forest Hog.

"That was so much fun because it also gave us a chance to highlight all the different kinds of institutions of higher education," Hinde said in her YouTube preview. "So we had military schools and community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities, and we were able to familiarize people with not just the animals but … different ways people can see higher learning."

For now, we can cheer on our favorite non-mascot animals. Dasani said she loves Sea Otters but is drawn to the Dad Bods division.

"I'm definitely pulling for them," she said.

Cramer prefers the Bulldog Bat and the Grasshopper Mouse, a "ferocious beast" that's tough enough to eat scorpions.

"How can it not win?" he asked.

Ten years after starting March Mammal Madness on a whim, Hinde reflected on what it's become and what it means to her.

"One of the most beautiful things about this tournament is that … people have loved it and they have invested in it and helped it flourish," she said. … "It's the most vibrant community celebrating nature I've ever encountered."

2023 March Mammal Madness Tournament

  • March 13- Wild Card
  • March 15- Round 1: Dad Bods Division
  • March 16- Round 1: Mighty Stripes Division
  • March 20- Round 1: Animal Engineers Division
  • March 22- Round 1: Itty Bitty Comeback City Division
  • March 23- Round 2: Dad Bods & Mighty Stripes
  • March 27- Round 2: Animal Engineers & Itty Bitty Comeback City
  • March 29- Sweet 16
  • March 30- Elite Trait
  • April 3- Final Roar
  • April 5- Championship