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    Mammal March Madness: Imaginary death matches in the animal kingdom

    A dramatic reenactment of an imaginary battle between the numbat and the quokka.
    Stephanie Meredith/Harvard Natural History Museum
    A dramatic reenactment of an imaginary battle between the numbat and the quokka.

    The men’s and women’s NCAA basketball championships kick off this week, but over at Harvard, another kind of single-elimination tournament is already underway — and in this one, the winners don’t receive a trophy, but they do escape with their lives.

    For the third year in a row, primatologist Katie Hinde is organizing “Mammal March Madness,” a series of simulated death matches between warm-blooded members of the animal kingdom. “I build a bracket, divvy up species, [look at] body mass, habitat, fighting style, armor, weaponry,” says Hinde. “Then we have our own selection Sunday where we calculate all the outcomes.”

    Previous champions in Mammal March Madness include the elephant (which vanquished the warthog in the 2013 championship game) and a pack of hyenas, which moved in on a beached orca whale to close out the 2014 tournament. This year Hinde has divided 64 mammals into four regions: Mighty Mini Mammals, Sexy Beasts, Mythical Mammals, and Critically Endangered Mammals. The animals are seeded 1-16 in each region (the fennec fox is the top-ranked mini mammal), and more than 300 people have sent in completed brackets. Prior to the start of competition, Hinde and her collaborators talk through the animals’ attributes and assign probabilities to each animal beating another in a fight. On game day, Hinde rolls a 100-sided die, with the appropriate percentage of numbers assigned to each animal. Whichever animal’s number comes up, wins.

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    Rather than simply declaring a winner, the researchers behind Mammal March Madness tweet a play-by-play of each match, as though it were happening in real-time. In the 2014 final, the odds tipped dramatically against the orca when the location of the battle was randomly determined to be the rainforest (until the Elite Eight, the battles take place in the higher-ranked mammal’s habitat; after that, the location is random). Just as in basketball March Madness, many of the most entertaining matches feature upsets. “The idea that there’s going to be a 100 percent outcome in nature isn’t likely,” says Hinde. “When surprises happen we go back and find a justification.”

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    One of the first major upsets of this year’s Mammal March Madness took place in the Mini Mammals region, when a pair of Australian marsupials faced off: the third-seeded quokka against the 14th-seeded numbat. The numbat defied the odds and won. Hinde says, “I spent a ton of time researching both the quokka and the numbat so I could create a narrative that could explain the outcome.” She settled on a storyline in which a tourist holding French fries lured the quokka off the battlefield, triggering a forfeit. This reflected a real life problem: Tourists routinely defy regulations and feed quokkas on Rottnest Island off the coast of Australia, the animal’s last remaining stronghold.

    Hinde began this year’s Mammal March Madness with a wild card round on March 9, and she’ll tweet the final match on March 26. In the meantime, the 13th-seeded Harvard men’s basketball team will take on the mighty University of North Carolina Tar Heels in an opening round game Thursday. I asked Hinde if the Harvard team might draw inspiration from any of the underdogs in Mammal March Madness, and she pointed to the 13th-seeded lowland streaked tenrec, which she describes as a “funky little mammal from Madagascar.”

    “What people don’t realize is it has these spiked barbs, that are detachable, and they can aim them, so they are incredibly strategic and basically pack a wallop that’s underappreciated,” she says. “In that sense, Harvard has a very good record of winning when the game is decided by three or fewer points.”

    Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

    A Storify from one of the rounds