Image: Katie Hinde

It’s March, which means that once again, snow is melting, plants are leafing out, and furry beasts are walloping on each other on Twitter. Yes, for the sixth year running, March Mammal Madness has engrossed science Twitter, turning rodent against marsupial and carnivore against nectar-slurper in the annual battle to the finish that has become a surprisingly powerful conservation communication tool.

Styled in the form of the (completely unaffiliated) NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship of a similar name, March Mammal Madness (MMM)—created in 2013 by biological anthropologist Katie Hinde—is the season’s most exquisitely nerdy tournament. A bracket of 64 typically-mammalian species are pitted against one another in imaginary battles, narrated out Dungeons and Dragons-style in a series of Tweets. Giraffes hold their ground against baboons; belligerent monkeys face off against hog deer. Any matchup can happen as the bracket is whittled down.

The battles are designed and written up by a team of organizers—often, a mix of scientists and science communicators—drawing on published scientific research about the animals’ biology. The resultant back-and-forth of awesome animal facts is at once educating, entertaining, and nail-biting. But one of the most profound opportunities MMM provides is communicating conservation issues to all who tune in to the melee.

This year’s bracket. Note the special non-mammal division!
Image: Will Nickley

Much of this information can be incorporated seamlessly into the battles themselves, Anne Hilborn, a biologist specializing in carnivore ecology and hunting behavior and a narrator of 2018 MMM tournament, told Earther.

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“We can talk about the challenges that are faced by these species, and make a more holistic narrative about them,” Hilborn said. “We can fold it in and make it part of the conversation so that while people are sort of like ‘ah, who’s gonna win this battle!’, they’re also reading about the role of protected areas and community conservation and the various strategies that work and don’t work.”

The hope, Hilborn says, is to give readers a more nuanced view of conservation issues, ones that take into account the entirety of the animal’s biology and the myriad of human activities that impact wild populations. By placing these issues within already-tense battle sequences, narrators remind readers that even in these imagined fights, the animals still exist in a world inhabited and manipulated by humans.

For instance, in one of the first rounds of last year’s tournament, a relatively highly-ranked mammal within its division (the semiaquatic, vaguely cat-like otter civet) lost in an upset against a diminutive antelope squirrel, all thanks to human meddling. Why? The battle took place in the civet’s Southeast Asian rainforest domain, and a bulldozer came crashing onto the scene while it cleared rainforest for a palm oil plantation, dashing the civet’s hopes for victory. An eerily plausible outcome.

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Back in 2014, another shocking upset came in the battle between the fossa (a mid-sized carnivore from Madagascar) and the armored pangolin. The altercation ended abruptly when the pangolin was snatched up mid-battle by a poacher, illustrating the grim reality of the precious, sentient artichoke’s status as the world’s most trafficked mammal.

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While the deus ex machina-type endings to these bouts may have sent shockwaves through folks’ carefully crafted brackets, the message about the very real threats present to these species was clear.

To Patrice Kurnath Connors, a second-time MMM narrator this year, mammal biologist, and visiting Assistant Professor at Utah’s Weber State University, exposure to conservation issues is a unique function of the tournament. It’s especially exciting that the message can get out to those less likely to get this information from traditional sources.

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“It’s a super-cool jump off point to reach people who are maybe not as into science,” Kurnath Connors told Earther. “I don’t necessarily think we’re creating activists, but it’s been a great avenue to bring up these issues.”

As participants get more invested in the success of their bracket picks, what are normally academic subjects become as charged as any sports competition. “To see that about biology and conservation warms the cockles of a biologist’s heart,” Hilborn said.

A Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus), an highly-endangered animal related to shrews and moles, found in the Caribbean. Solenodons are among the only mammals with a venomous bite. This species is featured in the Great Adaptations division in this year’s MMM bracket.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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While it remains to be seen how conservation issues will be incorporated into this year’s bouts, threatened species pepper the bracket. Examples include West Africa’s pygmy hippo (Choeropsis liberiensis), an endangered relative of the gigantic, more famous variety, and the perpetually disheveled lemur, the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Another particularly endangered combatant this year is the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), the world’s largest living carnivorous marsupial. Endemic to Australia’s island of Tasmania, it’s currently suffering continued population declines, largely due to impacts from a type of transmissible cancer—devil facial tumor disease (DFTD)—that causes horrific growths to sprout all over afflicted devils’ faces.

“The single largest impact on devils is DFTD,” Save the Tasmanian Devil program wildlife biologist Billie Lazenby told Earther. “It is highly infectious, continues to be prevalent despite very large declines in density, and is invariably fatal.”

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The disease has left wild populations disjointed and in low densities, and the effect is felt even among those that have managed to persist.

Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
Photo: Mathias Appel

Tasmanian devils, and other aforementioned threatened mammals will feature in tonight’s first round of battles, which can tracked on Twitter at the official account retweeting all the narrations (@2018MMMletsgo) and with the hashtag #2018MMM. The wildcard bout took place earlier this week, but there’s still plenty left to go in this year’s bracket, so if you haven’t filled out a bracket, head here to do so now and pick your champions. Every night’s events start at 8:30 PM EST.

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Me? I’m pulling for Doedicurus, an extinct, car-sized armadillo from South America that had a brutal spiked club at the end of its tail and a bite-proof, domed shell. Not sure how that’s beatable, but if past tournaments are any indication, I’m likely to be surprised.

Jake Buehler is a Seattle area science writer with an adoration for the Tree of Life’s weird, wild, and unsung—follow him on Twitter or at his blog.