The great animal battle that takes place every year on Twitter to teach ecology to 400,000 students
Last week, a harpy eagle fought a Goliath beetle … in Twitter. The raptor defeated the insect in the first round of the annual tournament March Mammal Madness, which faces animal species from all over the planet in a series of combats from which only one winner can emerge. The championship, which has been held since 2013, was born in the mind of Katie Hinde, a professor in the Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change. The teacher wanted to create a pool of animals based on the results they would obtain when facing each other in nature, according to the characteristics of each one. At first, Hinde explains, it was a game intended for the members of his laboratory. Now it is a massive event that more than 5,000 teachers will use to bring ecology closer to more than 400,000 students, according to estimates by the study published this year in eLife magazine.
Each year, Hinde prepares a list of 64 animals, not necessarily mammals, for which a team of storytellers imagines and recounts a series of confrontations based on what would happen in real life. The battles between each pair of species are broadcast ‘live’ on Twitter threads to the delight of a community of academics, high school students and fans of the subject, who join the tournament cheering the contestants and portraying them with memes. “Twitter has the advantage of allowing that real-time sensation of the sports chronicle, while allowing us to enter images, videos, links, usernames of scientists, hashtags and more”, explains the creator of March Mammal Madness. The championship is completed with materials educational institutions that high schools can use to guide their students’ learning and, with each day, a stuffed marmot stars summaries that are uploaded to Youtube.
Each battle begins with descriptions of the contenders from information gathered from academic articles. Thanks to those initial tweets, we know that harpy eagles feed mainly on arboreal mammals and that Goliath beetles can measure more than 12 centimeters in length. Afterwards, the place of the confrontation is introduced, which will be the habitat of one of the two species and, finally, the encounter between these is introduced, which does not have to be a fierce fight: some species flee, others lose interest and the eagle Harpy impaled the beetle with her spur without even realizing it. The winning species advances in successive rounds between categories until a grand final that faces the last two undefeated animals.
“The battles are based on facts. What is described are things that could happen in real life, “he explains. Eduardo Amorim, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and part of the genetics team of March Mammal Madness. Over the years and in parallel with the growing popularity of the tournament, collaborators from different disciplines and parts of the world have been joining the project, contributing to the development of the content that accompanies each match. Amorim arrived by invitation – “they were looking for active people on Twitter” – and now he is in charge of tweeting genetic data in the breaks between battles.
How do you decide who wins? Each species is more or less likely to win based on its characteristics, but a random number generator modifies these odds to add excitement to even the most lopsided encounters. “If this gives the smaller species the advantage, the storytellers have to accommodate it in the story and explain why, for example, a mouse could kill a fox,” says Amorim.
That chance allows fans of March Mammal Madness group as they please: taking the advantages of each animal seriously, limiting themselves to choosing their favorite species or, in the case of academics, betting on those closest to their field of study. “I usually go with canids and primates; I find them interesting ”, says the geneticist. But this year Amorim has among his favorites the vampire squid, which he discovered when he had to search for its genetic data. “It is not a vampire and it is not a squid, but an octopus. It lives in deep waters and with low oxygen levels ”.
Both geneticists and storytellers try to make their sources of information open access scientific articles that allow those interested to deepen their interests. And, if they get the chance, they quote researchers who have worked on the selected studies with the tag in their tweets. #actualLivingScientist (#TrueLiveScientist). “People know Einstein, but they don’t usually remember the names of living researchers.”
Alejandra Núñez-de la Mora, an anthropologist at the Institute of Psychological Research of the Veracruzana University (Mexico), learned about the tournament through Hinde, with whom she usually coincides in academic circles. “Whenever I saw her, I would say: ‘Now it’s time to do it in Spanish,’ but it’s a huge job and at first I wasn’t in a position to take it on,” he recalls. Two years ago, Núñez began to collaborate translating some content associated with the tournament, which already includes the pool and the materials that are offered to the institutes that want to follow the tournament. “It would be great if we could start watching this tournament not only in the United States, but also in Latin America and Spain,” he says. Hinde confirms that he intends to drive the international growth of the tournament, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, but he reserves the details. “We have many plans, but we are going to keep them secret until the end of this year,” he said.
Case of success
From the point of view of the Mexican researcher, March Mammal Madness It is an excellent example of scientific dissemination through gamification on social networks. “On Twitter there are some games in which a photograph is published and the challenge is to identify the species. But they are very short. As far as I know, we are the only one that takes a process of several weeks, which goes in crescendo”, He reasons. For her, the feeling of community, the annual wait and the mystery of which species will emerge victorious are among the ingredients that keep the tournament alive.
“I like that it is something that has emerged in a very organic way. Katie had no idea that this was going to grow that way, ”adds Núñez-de la Mora. Most of the collaborators, who also contribute to the management of social networks or the creation of illustrations of the animals, have never met in person outside of a video call. “A working family is forming. It is a very nice feeling to know that this is out there, it has a life of its own and maybe it is impacting many people in ways that one does not even conceive ”.
Amorim recognizes that social networks have been revealed as an effective tool to get his work as a researcher to unlikely audiences. “Now we are dealing with a pandemic and in my country – Brazil – I see a lot of false news and anti-science statements,” he laments. His hope is to counteract this by bringing his work closer to forums like Twitter. “I think it will help people understand that science is one of the best approaches we have to understand nature, disease, global warming … I think it is our obligation.”