RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The NCAA March Madness tournament features some tough matchups - badgers versus gators, rams versus bulldogs, wolverines against cardinals. But what if those animals actually did face off, like in nature? Who would win? Kat Lonsdorf on the NPR Ed Team found a bracket that takes that question seriously and makes it educational.
MICHELLE HARRIS: All right, you guys got your brackets out?
KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: It's first period at Wakefield High in Arlington, Va. And Miss Harris' AP environmental science class is getting right to it.
HARRIS: So we're going to jump down to the fourth seed, spidermonkey against the 12th-seeded antelope squirrel.
LONSDORF: This is March Mammal Madness round two.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Spidermonkey better win.
LONSDORF: It's a competition playing out in hundreds of classrooms around the country and on the Internet. It puts real animals in fictional battles and uses science - a lot of it - to figure out who'd win. March Mammal Madness was created five years ago by Katie Hinde, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University. And now, Hinde says, there's a whole team of volunteers behind it.
KATIE HINDE: Biologists, animal behaviorists, paleoanthropologists, marine biologists.
LONSDORF: That team meets virtually every year to have a Selection Sunday of their own. They pick the animals, and they decide who's going to win, but keep the outcomes a secret. That's because a whole lot of research has to be done. Each battle is assigned to a specific scientist, who studies up and then writes a battle story based on facts. The battles are tweeted throughout the month...
HINDE: As an active play-by-play dynamic story, much like somebody watching a basketball game unfold.
LONSDORF: And the tweets link to scientific articles, videos, photos, fossil records, whatever the team can use to drop knowledge into a story. Which is why teachers, like Michelle Harris here in Virginia, have started using the brackets in class. There are heartbreaks and upsets too, like the time a snow leopard and a flying squirrel faced off in the rain forest. The snow leopard overheated and lost. Or the time a quokka, this cute fuzzy animal from Australia, was lured off the playing field by a group of tourists feeding it human junk food. Sure, it's a little ridiculous. But Hinde says the point is to have fun while creating a learning opportunity.
HINDE: We really try and showcase animals that a lot of people might not have ever heard of.
LONSDORF: Animals like...
HINDE: Dhole and bandicoot and binturong and babirusa.
HARRIS: The number six seed tiger versus the number three seed, the leopard seal.
LONSDORF: At Wakefield High, senior Jordan Simpson is giggling with Tiara Jones looking up the bilby, a tiny Australian marsupial.
TIARA: I thought it was cute, so I picked it (laughter).
LONSDORF: You picked it going all the way?
TIARA: Yeah. I knew I had no chance. But I thought I'd give it a shot.
LONSDORF: Did it get knocked out already?
TIARA: Oh, yeah. It's gone (laughter) the first round.
LONSDORF: So your bracket was busted day one.
TIARA: Oh, yeah. It's done (laughter).
LONSDORF: I get it. My alma mater, the wildcats, they lost to the bulldogs. But at least they made it to round two. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "RUINS")
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