March Mammal Madness – Let the Games Begin!

Posted March 10, 2022 by Margaret Janz

Most of us are familiar with March Madness, the bracketed tournament of basketball teams. Each year fans use their knowledge about each team (and their own feelings of loyalty) to predict the outcome of each match up and, ultimately, the team that they think will win it all. Then, on pins and needles, they watch to see if their predictions are correct.

Another game arose from this idea in 2013. A trio of scientist friends from around the United States wondered if the fervor around this format of a game could be adapted to help encourage people to learn about the diversity of life on this earth. And so began another spring tradition – March Mammal Madness. Using scientific literature, the March Mammal Madness (MMM) team researched 65 animals, ranked them based on their various adaptations, placed them in a bracket, and imagined what would happen if the species found themselves in the same habitat.

Which species would do best in the habitat and advance to the next round of the bracket is based partially on the animal’s ranking but is ultimately decided by a random number generator. This means that while a bactrian camel is better adapted to be in the desert than a Galapagos tortoise, for example, the tortoise could still be determined to be the winner. It’s up to the scientists who write the imagined encounters to read the scientific literature to find a plausible way that the tortoise might do better. Sometimes this involves a storyline with human intervention, a strange weather phenomenon or the addition of a third species that might upset the otherwise well-adapted animal and give the underdog an unexpected advantage.

For the next nine years, more and more people joined in to try and predict who the ‘winner’ of MMM would be while the team worked to help educators bring the joy of learning about the diversity of life into the classroom. Our Education Department team here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden also aims to bring a love for animals into the classroom through our programs that allow learners to meet real animals face-to-face and everyone’s a winner.

This year marks the 10th March Mammal Madness games. The previous nine champions have strong connections to the residents here at CZBG. Let’s take a look at three of these fine species and consider how their adaptations could have helped them advance in their brackets when meeting other species.

Elephant – 2013 Champ

The very first MMM champion was the African elephant. These animals are bigger than the Asian elephants we have here at the Zoo, but they share many qualities with them. In addition to being very large, Asian and African elephants are very social animals, living and traveling in herds led by a matriarch, or older female. Elephants are famously intelligent and solve complicated problems, use tools, and are very playful when they’re young. They have relatively few natural predators given their massive size and that, paired with their intelligence, are factors that helped them become the first champion in MMM.

Despite having few natural predators, Asian elephants face a number of threats in the wild. Elephants migrate great distances to find food and water and this often leads them into areas that have been settled by humans. The conflict this creates between humans and elephants is not an easy problem to solve. The Zoo provides support for organizations that work to help relocate elephants and those that help ensure more peaceful coexistence between our two species.

Here at the Zoo we’re creating a new habitat for our elephants to live and play in. The Elephant Trek project will make it possible to bring new elephants to our Zoo, helping diversify our herd and bolster our team’s understanding of elephant reproduction.


Sumatran Rhino – 2015 Champ

Unlike many other MMM champions, Sumatran Rhinos are solitary animals. They are very large and intimidating, which could make other animals leave the area rather than engage with these beautiful giants. These rhinos naturally live in rainforests, swamps, and cloud forests, which gives them the advantage of adaptability when it comes to places they are comfortable.

Unfortunately, Sumatran Rhinos are some of the most endangered animals in the world.The Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) here at the Zoo has been working for many years at the forefront of research on how to save these animals. The team here has had some of the only success in breeding these rhinos in human care and has been working in Sumatra to continue their successes. One of our keepers, Paul Reinhart, has seen the birth of every Sumatran rhino born in his lifetime and will soon travel to Sumatra to help with the birth of another – the grandchild of Andalas, born at the CZBG in 2001

Western Lowland Gorilla – 2020 Champ

Western Lowland Gorilla was the MMM champ in 2020. Gorillas, like elephants, are social mammals and live in small family groups called troops. Also like elephants, gorillas are extremely intelligent, using tools to problem solve and learning through play as they grow up. Gorilla troops are led by older males, called silverbacks, and are not very territorial. Their intelligence, intimidating threat displays, and comfort in a variety of habitats certainly helped them rise to the top in MMM.

Gorillas are critically endangered and one cause is mineral mining that destroys their habitats. The minerals being mined in gorilla habitat are frequently used in cell phones and other electronics.You can help by using your electronics until they no longer function and then recycling them here at the Zoo. The Zoo also works in the Congo and with other organizations to protect gorillas and their habitat and has been a leader in conservation breeding efforts, welcoming 50 new gorillas into the world and the Cincinnati Zoo family over the years.

Who’s Next?

The 2022 MMM bracket was revealed on February 23, and participants are busily researching this year’s animals. If you made a Cincinnati Zoo-specific bracket to compare the adaptations of the animals here at the Zoo, what animals would you include? Perhaps our Mexican Wolves, whose tundra relatives won MMM in 2016, or our close relative to the 2019 champ, the Bengal tiger. What traits and adaptations do you think are most impressive and useful to our animals? The strength and ferocious roar of King John, our African lion, or his companion Imani are certainly noteworthy, but so is the teamwork of our African painted dogs or meerkats. Fiona’s bite and will to survive would serve her well and Rico’s quills are not to be messed with. Who at the Zoo do you think would stand the best chance to win it all, and why? Feel free to download and fill out a Zoo Animal Madness bracket here and share your matchups and victors in the comments below!