WHO WOULD WIN A FIGHT BETWEEN AN OSPREY AND A MUSTANG?

by Whit Gibbons

February 2, 2014

Someone once asked me who would win a fight between a tiger and a polar bear. I said it would depend on who had the home field advantage. Meanwhile, who would win a contest between ospreys, aka seahawks, and wild horses, aka broncos? The answer will be known on Groundhog Day.

Such pairings of animals that will never meet in the natural world happen constantly in sports. Of the 32 NFL teams, 14 have nicknames that are birds or mammals, mostly predators, that are unlikely to square off in real life. For example, lions (Detroit), Bengal tigers (Cincinnati), jaguars (Jacksonville), and panthers (Carolina) are all big, fearsome cats. None are found on the same continent as another so they are unlikely to meet except at a sports event. Cardinals (St. Louis), colts (Indianapolis), and dolphins (Miami) seem the most benign of the bunch. They don't invoke an image of a very scary opponent, although a lion might have a tough time on a dolphin's home turf (the ocean).

The majority of universities and colleges with biological nicknames have chosen fierce and powerful creatures such as eagles (54), bears (46), and lions (25), but a few have chosen plants. The best known would be the Ohio State Buckeyes. The buckeye is a tree renowned for its perseverance and toughness. We shouldn't overlook the Indiana State University Sycamores or the Fighting Artichokes of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. And it's pure chutzpah to call yourself the New York University Violets. No pro football team is named after a plant, but if Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, would consider a logo change to accommodate the Spanish peanuts or Idaho potatoes, he would be adding a biological nickname that might gain wide acceptance.

Although not as popular as bird and mammal predators among academic nicknames, a fair diversity of invertebrates have made the scene. Everyone knows that spiders are venomous creatures so sports teams are understandably terrified when the Richmond (Va.) Spiders enter the stadium. And who would want to be playing when the USC-Sumter (S.C.) Fire Ants swarm onto the field? Likewise the University of Texas-Brownsville Scorpions sound like a formidable foe. Most people are probably familiar with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, but 13 other academic institutions also have the nickname of those relentless stinging members of the wasp family. The U.C. Santa Cruz Banana Slugs do not sound like a force to be reckoned with. I remember the first time my kids and I saw one of these 6-inch-long gastropods crossing a highway in Washington's Olympic National Park. I thought someone had thrown a banana peel out of a car. These giant packages of moving slime would not be very intimidating to an eagle, bear, or lion, but they do have a lot of charisma for a slug. The Enterprise (Ala.) State Community College Boll Weevils aren't likely to stir much fear in any opponent, although they might have an edge if they played in the Cotton Bowl.

Dogs are also mascots for many schools, especially bulldogs (42), huskies (10), terriers (6), and greyhounds (6). Also included among canine nicknames, with one each, are bloodhounds, boxers, and Great Danes. A couple of schools that make me want to cheer for the team for no other reason than the nickname are the U.C. Irvine Anteaters and the Pittsburg State (Kan.) Gorillas.

One way to resolve the question about who would prevail in a contest between a polar bear and a tiger would be to arrange a shootout between the Bowdoin College (Maine) Polar Bears and the best of the 41 college teams that call themselves tigers. The Dalhousie University Tigers in Nova Scotia would probably have the best shot at beating the Bowdoin Polar Bears in ice hockey on their home rink. Clemson, LSU, and Auburn would presumably excel against Bowdoin if the game were football. Princeton, however . . .

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