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11 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Taxidermy

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The Deyrolle Taxidermy Shop in Paris, which was established in 1831.

Think all there is to taxidermy is stuffing an animal? Think again. Since the days of William Hornaday and Carl Akeley, taxidermy has been a scientific art: It requires practitioners not only to take accurate measurements and photos and make traces of the animals they'd like to mount, but to study the anatomy of those animals—all for the purpose of creating a specimen that is true to life. Read on for 11 things you might not know about the history, development, and practice of taxidermy.

1. The first person to use the word “taxidermy”—which comes from the Greek words taxis, or “arrangement,” and derma, or “skin”—was Louis Dufresne of the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. He wrote about it in the 1803 reference book Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle.

2. Taxidermy began in England in the early 19th century. An increased demand for leather meant that tanning—turning an animal's skin into preserved leather—became commonplace, and this made preservation of species catalogued by naturalists possible. Victorians often anthropomorphized their taxidermy, dressing stuffed animals in clothes and working them into tableaus like the ones created by Walter Potter. They were also obsessed with animals that were deemed "curiosities": deformed creatures with extra heads or legs.

3. Early proponents of taxidermy included Captain James Cook (he brought the first kangaroo skin back to London in 1771) and Charles Darwin, who would not have been allowed to travel as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle without that skill. He learned the trade from a freed Guyanese slave.

4. Early taxidermy mounts were stuffed with sawdust and rags without regard for actual anatomy, so the models were often disfigured. In fact, mounts from those days skewed how we imagined creatures like the long-extinct dodo for years. Today, taxidermists can purchase a mannequin—which they can sculpt to achieve the position they want, then stretch and sew the skin over it—or create their own using old methods, like the Victorian-era process of winding the body shape out of string.

5. When Captain John Hunter sent the first pelt and sketch of a platypus back to England in 1798, many assumed it was a hoax—that someone had sewn a duck's bill to the coat of a beaver. George Shaw, author of The Naturalist's Miscellany: Or, Coloured Figures Of Natural Objects; Drawn and Described Immediately From Nature, reportedly took scissors to the skin to check for stitches.

6. The first American taxidermy competition was held in 1880. The top prize was awarded to taxidermist William Hornaday’s A Fight in the Tree-Tops, which depicted two male Bornean orangutans fighting over a female. The scene, which was scientifically accurate, changed the purpose of taxidermy—it inspired other taxidermists to aim for accuracy in their mounts, too.

Hornaday working on a lion mount. Photo Courtesy Taxidermy.net.

7. Dioramas like the ones in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) show animals in their painstakingly recreated natural habitats. Carl Akeley (for whom the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at AMNH is named) created the first habitat diorama in America—which portrayed muskrats—in 1889. The Milwaukee Public Museum still has it on display.

Akeley's obsessive method of preserving one elephant was detailed by his wife in her memoir, The Wilderness Lives Again. Melissa Milgrom sums it up in her book Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy:

After the elephant was shot in the bush, he shaded it under a tarp to slow it from decomposing. After he photographed it for reference, he took detailed measurements with a tape measure and calipers, compensating for variations that make a dead animal different from a living one, such as deflated lungs, a limp trunk, and flaccid muscles. Next he cased the skull and leg bones in plaster and made a death mask of the face to capture its fine musculature. ... Akeley skinned animals like a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. All his incisions minimized future seams, so they'd disappear when the animal was assembled later. The legs were cut on the inside; the back was cut longitudinally along the spine; the head was cast, cut off. Once skinned, the elephant was fleshed ... It took Akeley and his team of porters four to five days to remove and prepare the thick, 2000 pound hide, using small knives so they would not mar the skin.

Back at the museum, Akeley tanned the hide in a 12-week-long process that turned the 2.5-inch thick hide into quarter-inch leather. He then made an outline of the elephant on the floor and built its internal frame—using steel, wood, and the elephant's bones—on top of it. He covered the frame with wire mesh, and then clay which he sculpted to recreate the elephant's muscles. After placing the skin on this form and making sure the clay accurately replicated "every fold and wrinkle," Milgrom says, he cast the form in plaster to make a lightweight mannequin, which is what he eventually stretched the skin over. This is the process he used to create the elephants in the Akeley African Hall of Mammals (below).

In addition to his obsessive eye for detail—he even invented the first portable movie camera to capture footage of animals in the wild, to better create more accurate taxidermy mounts—Akeley was also a badass: In one of many adventures, he killed a leopard with his bare hands.

8. Arsenic was one of taxidermy’s earliest preservatives. In those days, competition was fierce, so methods of preservation differed from taxidermist to taxidermist and were closely guarded—some even went to the grave without revealing their secrets.

9. In taxidermy, a specimen is an exact replica of the animal as it appeared in the wild; an example of a trophy is a deer head mounted on the wall.

10. Taxidermy competitions include a category called “Re-Creations,” where taxidermists attempt to create an animal without using any of its actual parts—making an eagle using turkey feathers, for example, or creating a realistic panda using bearskin—or even recreating extinct species based on scientific data.

11. When the rhino that belonged to Louis XIV and Louis XV was hacked to death by a revolutionary in 1793, its skin was varnished and stretched over a frame of wooden hoops. At that time, it was the largest animal to undergo a modern taxidermy process. The skin is on display at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris (below); its bones are displayed separately.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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