Duel between animals, colored engraving of a drawing by Grandville from the series 'The Metamorphoses of the Day' (1854) DEA / ICAS94 / De Agostini via Getty Images
Last week, a harpy eagle fought a Goliath beetle… on Twitter . The raptor defeated the insect in the first round of the annual March Mammal Madness tournament, which pits animal species from around the globe in a series of fights 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 School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. 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 the study published this year in the journal eLife.
Each year, Hinde prepares a list of 64 animals, not necessarily mammals, for those that a team of storytellers imagine and relate 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 feel of the sports report, 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 educational materials that the institutes can use to guide the learning of their students and, with each day, a stuffed marmot stars in 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 progresses 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 ”, explains Eduardo Amorim , postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and part of the March Mammal Madness genetic team. 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 fit it into the story and explain why, for example, a mouse could kill a fox," says Amorim.
This chance allows fans of March Mammal Madness to group together 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 own. 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 interested parties to deepen their interests. And, if they have the opportunity, they quote the researchers who have worked on the selected studies in their tweets with the tag #actualLivingScientist ( # VerdaderoCientíficoVivo ). "People know Einstein, but rarely remember the names of living researchers" .
Quiniela translated to the Spanish by Alejandra Núñez-of MoraMarch Mammal Madness
Alejandra Núñez de la Mora, an anthropologist at the Research Institute for Psychological Universidad Veracruzana ( Mexico), learned about the tournament through Hinde, with whom he 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 by 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 withholding the details. "We have many plans, but we are going to keep them secret until the end of this year," he says.
success story From the point of view of the Mexican researcher, March Mammal Madness is an excellent example of scientific dissemination through gamification in networks social. “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 who takes a process of several weeks, which is in crescendo, ”he reasons. For her, the sense 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 come about 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 perhaps it is impacting many people in ways that one does not even conceive. I 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 the people understand that science is one of the best approaches we have to understand the nature, disease, global warming … I think it's our obligation" .
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