If your team didn’t make it to the National Championship game, or basketball just isn’t your cup of tea, you might not be interested in ‘March Madness’ brackets. Here’s a bracket that might change your mind: the bracket to name our earliest mammal ancestor. Unfortunately, voting is now closed. Making a bracket to name an extinct shrew may seem strange at first, but scientists frequently try to engage the public and crowd-source data. Examples of crowd-sourcing the work of citizen scientists can be found on the Scientific American website.
So, what is this animal? Well, technically speaking, it doesn’t actually exist. Instead, it is a ‘hypothetical placental mammal ancestor‘. Scientists across the country and across the globe worked together to reconstruct a phylogeny, or family tree, for placental mammals, with the shrew-like ‘hypothetical placental mammal ancestor’ at the base. Here is a video from the American Museum of Natural History explaining how they found this creature.
Why do we need this bracket? Why can’t the scientists just name the animal and be done with it? There a variety of reasons why. First of all, because the animal is purely hypothetical and there is no corresponding fossil, it cannot be given a scientific Linnean name. Also, this is exciting news. Even the layperson can appreciate the gravity of identifying our basal ancestor. However, the name ‘hypothetical placental mammal ancestor’ does not roll off the tongue. Scientists frequently give fossils nicknames (think Lucy, Ardi or Sue the T-rex). This makes it easier to talk about the fossil without the potential barrier of scientific language.
If scientists name fossils all the time, why make a bracket? Scientists are busy people, you can’t just demand that they give the ‘hypothetical placental mammal ancestor’ a nickname! Besides, by using a bracket and allowing people to vote on their favorite names, this gets the public directly involved with the science. By making science accessible, people will be more inclined to learn more. Science doesn’t have to be scary.
And what is the name for this hypothetical creature? Shrewdinger, a play on its similarity to a shrew and hypothetical nature. To learn more about Shrewdinger and the research surrounding it, check out the links below.