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March conservation madness: endangered species mascots in the NCAA basketball tournament

WhySharksMatter at a previous Final 4 (in the midst of the Great Darwin Beard Challenge)

This weekend was Selection Sunday, the annual revealing of brackets for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the official start of “March Madness”. This year’s field of 68 teams features some incredible basketball talent, some heartwarming stories of individuals and teams overcoming adversity… and quite a few schools which use threatened or endangered species as mascots. As I am a huge college basketball fan in addition to being a conservationist, I couldn’t resist a quick tour.

South region:

#11 Colorado
Mascot: Buffaloes. Considered “Near Threatened” by the IUCN Red List, American bison are iconic of the U.S. conservation movement.
First game:  Thursday at 9:57 vs. the #6 UNLV Running Rebels
Expected outcome: Though 6/11 games are often popular picks for upsets, we can expect that not too long from now, Colorado’s fans will speak fondly about the time that their team used to roam the plains of the NCAA tournament in huge numbers.

#3 Baylor
Mascot: Bears (specifically black bears), which Baylor University keeps several of in captivity. According to the bear program’s website,  ” Texas [where Baylor University is located] has a population of 50 North American Black Bears, and is an endangered species within the state of Texas. Nationally, bears are not endangered and have a strong, viable population.”
First game:  Thursday at 7:27 vs the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (species not specified, though most North American jackrabbits are IUCN “Least Concern”.
Expected outcome: About what you’d expect from a fight between a bear and a rabbit (when running away isn’t an option).

West region:

#8 Memphis
Mascot: Tiger, IUCN Red List Endangered due to habitat destruction and hunting for their colorful pelts.
First game: Friday at 6:50 vs. the #9 Saint Louis Billikens (don’t ask, but they’re not a real thing so they’re not endangered)
Expected outcome: Hard to say, as St. Louis and Memphis have both shown flashes of being a grrrrrrrrr-eat team.

#5 New Mexico
Mascot: Lobos (a.k.a. gray wolves), which were protected by the Endangered Species Act until last year.
First game: Thursday at 4:10 against #12 Long Beach State
Expected outcome: This is a popular upset pick among sports fans, as LBSU has beaten some very good teams, but the lobos should be in good shape here unless they run into Liam Neeson…

#2 Missouri
Mascot: Tigers (again).
First game: Friday at 4:40 vs. #15 Norfolk State
Expected outcome: Mizzou is a favorite to reach the Final Four, and unlike real tigers, they should have little difficulty surviving the first weekend of games.

East region:

#13 Montana
Mascot: Grizzlies, listed as threatened by the U.S. fish and wildlife service until recently. Their main threats come from habitat loss and population fragmentation.
First game: Thursday at 2:10 vs. the #4 Wisconsin Badgers
Expected outcome: Wisconsin’s tough defense and superior size will do to the Montana Grizzlies what trains often do to real grizzly bears that try to scavenge food from the tracks.

#6 Cincinatti
Mascot: Bearcats, aka Binturongs, which are IUCN Vulnerable due to hunting, the exotic pet trade, and habitat destruction. Bearcat is also slang for wolverine, but with apologies to my Michigan-alum brother, binturongs are way cooler than wolverines.
First game:  Friday at 12:15 vs. #11 Texas Longhorns.
Expected outcome: The Bearcats will build up a healthy lead before the halftime rush to get soda and popcorn… the latter of which supposedly smells exactly like Binturong musk.

#14 St. Bonaventure
Mascot: Bonnies, which I have been assured are represented by a wolf known as the “bona wolf”.
First game: Friday at 2:45 vs. the #3 Florida State Seminoles
Expected outcome: These wolves will need their Endangered Species Act protections reinstated to survive this FSU team, which is the first ACC team in decades to beat both Duke and UNC twice in a season.

Midwest region:

#11 North Carolina State
Mascot: Wolfpack
First game: Friday at 12:40 vs. #6 San Diego State Aztecs
Expected Outcome:  NC State will have to play as a pack in order to defeat the more talented San Diego State.

Miscellaneous animal mascot trivia:

-The most common mascot in the 2012 tournament is the wildcat, also known as a lynx or bobcat, which considered “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List. Kentucky, Kansas State, and Davidson all use wildcats as their mascot, and Ohio University has bobcats. Their European relative, the Iberian Lynx, is considered Critically Endangered.

-One team, the University of California, uses an extinct animal as their mascot. The “Golden Bears” are a subspecies of brown bear that sadly doesn’t exist anymore.

-The most common animal mascots seem to be predatory mammals (tigers, bears, wolves, wildcats, bobcats, cougars, catamounts) and birds (blue jays, cardinals, golden eagles).

- Some teams use made-up animals as their mascot. For example, my Duke Blue Devils play the Lehigh “Mountain Hawks” on Friday evening, and according to Lehigh’s website, “While there is no species of bird known as the ‘mountain hawk,’ it is not uncommon to spot hawks sailing over Lehigh’s home on South Mountain”

-Not a single team with a marine animal as a mascot made the field of 68 teams… not even my personal favorites, the USC-Beaufort “sand sharks”, named after a species of shark that doesn’t exist. The University of Miami Hurricanes, one of the “bubble teams” that didn’t make the field, are at least a marine phenomena.

-I do not recommend picking your bracket based on the mascot, though stranger ideas have won office pools.