By Anna Hawley, Public Program Coordinator
One of my roles here at the Aldo Leopold Foundation is managing our social media accounts and monitoring the on-line buzz around all things Leopold. It is an exciting job– it’s always fun to see what questions or conversations will have popped up overnight. While a focus on digital communication tools may seem a bit unconventional for an organization interested in developing people’s relationships to land, it is hard to deny the audience and potential reach of these platforms, not to mention all of the engaging outdoor experiences that people commonly share together on social media. I’ve found that all of our social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube) are powerful tools for engagement, education, and support. A particularly fun social media event that the foundation takes part in annually is something called March Mammal Madness.
March Mammal Madness? I already know what you are thinking. I just used alliteration to make up a strange sounding string of words that don’t mean anything. In reality, March Mammal Madness is the actual title of an increasingly popular annual online educational experience for mammal enthusiasts of all ages and experience levels. The event was created by evolutionary biologist Katie Hinde of Arizona State University in 2013. Hinde was looking for a fun extra credit assignment for her students that would be related to their learning objectives when she stumbled across an online animal bracket based solely on cuteness. Disappointed, Hinde saw a unique opportunity to channel public interest in the March tradition of bracket competitions and harness it for scientific education.
With this inspiration, Katie designed an online tournament where animal rankings are drawn from scientific literature and consider each animal’s adaptations, temperament, habitat, body armor (if that applies), feeding habits, behavior, and other factors. When it’s time to face off, scientists take to Twitter to narrate evidence-based battles that communicate what would likely happen if the two animals clashed in real life, sharing natural history information and educating about conservation concerns along the way. Thousands of people follow the event on Twitter in real time using the hashtag; others catch up after the fact. Results are also updated on Hinde’s blog after each night of the tournament.
Our director of education Jen Kobylecky is mammal enthusiast herself and began following along with the tournament a few years ago, even going so far as organizing a staff-wide pool for some friendly competition.
It didn’t take long for the power of the event to demonstrate how an online experience could translate to real world learning opportunities. For a solid month, instead of the usual water cooler conversations, several staff would cluster each morning around the bracket wall and discuss and debate the outcomes of the previous night’s match-ups, lamenting the real conservation challenges that we all knew were occurring, but with an emotional connection (thanks to the competition aspect) that was somewhat unexpected.
Needless to say, several of our staff have become avid fans of the event, and this year, the Aldo Leopold Foundation was delighted to become an official partner! During each battle, we shared “inspirational intermission” messages about caring for people, land and communities, raising awareness of Leopold and other conservation leaders with insights on land ethics. The event was educational, fun, and a great way to engage on-line with new audiences.
As this fun new March tradition continues to grow, we invite you to join in by filling out your own bracket and following along online. It’s a great way to learn new things about mammals you know and love and add some new ones to your life learning list. You can check out all the details from the 2017 event and even vote for what animals you’d like to see compete in the 2018 event on Katie Hinde’s blog. You can also follow the competition’s official accounts on Twitter and Facebook.
Clouded Leopard illustration by Charon Henning