thor's hero shrew

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It’s that time of year again! Mammal March Madness has arrived! 

This is the annual tournament of simulated combat between mammal species organized by four biologists. 65 species enter … and only one is crowned the champion. Here’s how it works:

Scientific literature is cited to substantiate likely outcomes as a probabilistic function of the two species’ attributes within the battle environment. Attributes considered in calculating battle outcome include temperament, weaponry, armor, body mass, running speed, fight style, physiology, and motivation.

Through the scientific information embedded in the bout descriptions, participants are educated about inter-species interactions, the importance of ecological context, how natural selection has shaped adaptations, and conservation management of endangered species.

The first bout - a wildcard match between the Thor Hero Shrew and the King Midas Bat has already finished (winner: HERO SHREW) - but you still have time to fill out your bracket before the first round of regular match-ups (the “chill mammal” division) begins tonight. Download your bracket here and fill it out!

You can follow the matches on twitter via the #2016MMM hashtag. Tournament schedule:

Week One
3/8    Chill
3/9    Mascots
3/10  Mighty Giants
3/11  Nouns                 

Week Two
3/14  MG & C
3/16  M&N
3/17  Sweet 16

Week Three
3/21  Elite Trait
3/22  Final Roar
3/24  Championship

My favorite to win? Ursus maritimus.

Here’s my terrible, punny sports-radio style send-up of last year’s competition:

The illustrations in the poster up top were created by Charon Henning - check out more of her artwork here.

The hero shrew (Scutisorex somereni), native to the Congo Basin of Africa, might look like a fairly typical large shrew on the outside. But this 25cm long (10") mammal has one of the strangest backbones known to science. (Image source)

Most vertebrates are quite conservative as far as their spines go, with the bones rarely being modified to any extreme degree. The hero shrew’s vertebrae, however, have corrugated bony projections on each side that interlock with each other, forming an incredibly strong reinforced structure. The spine is so strong, in fact, that it can withstand the weight of a 72kg human (160lbs) standing on it – over 1000 times its own body weight.

Just what a shrew needs such a robust back for is still a mystery. There’s a hypothesis that they might lever themselves under heavy logs and rocks in search of invertebrate prey, but such behavior hasn’t been observed in the wild yet.

A second type of hero shrew, Thor’s hero shrew (Scutisorex thori), was described in July 2013. The evolutionary differences between the two taxa compared to other shrews suggest that whatever these animals have been doing with their spines, they’ve been doing it for at least 4 million years.