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Animals that only bite tourists.

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It's not always fun to introduce visitors to your local flora and fauna. Dealing with tourists can be a real chore. So the habit of pulling their legs a bit can be a welcome bit of fun. It goes on all over the world, so when you are traveling, be aware that there may be a bit of poking fun going on ...especially if you're told of a scary local animal to beware.

A Snipe (Gallinago naivitus) is the classic animal used for practical jokes, as in the snipe hunt. The person upon who the joke is played is convinced to hold a bag while the others chase the snipe into it. Variations include using ridiculous methods of attracting and/or chasing the snipe. In the end, the patsy is left all alone for however long they will stay put. The term "left holding the bag" may have arisen from this trick. The snipe is supposedly a very difficult animal to shoot, therefore, a crack shot is called a "sniper." However, the word snipe refers to around 20 species of real wading birds.

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The Drop Bear (Phascolarctos carnivorous) is a truly scary animal. A marsupial native to Australia, it is a vicious carnivore that attacks its prey by hiding high in a tree and dropping onto unsuspecting tourists. Photos of a drop bear show a startling resemblence to a koala, which is how the sneaky beasts fool you into standing under their trees. See the Drop Bear in action in this video starring Peter Holt.

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The Hodag (Bovinus spiritualis) is a ferocious animal native to Wisconsin. The black hodag was first discovered in 1893 and is the largest of the several hodag species. It has two horns and a series of spikes along its spine. There are also the sidehill dodge hodag, the cave hodag, and the shovel-nose hodag. See a video about a hodag sighting here.

More fearsome creatures, after the jump.

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The Jackalope (Lagomorpha fantasticus) is a cross between a rabbit and an antelope (or sometimes a goat or deer). Jackalopes only mate during electrical storms. They can be caught by using whiskey as bait, which will render them easier to sneak up on. Jackalope milk is suposed to have medicinal qualities. The German version is called the Wolpertinger (Crisensus bavaricus), which has wings. The legend of the jackalope may have come from sightings of rabbits infected with the Shope papillomavirus, which causes hornlike growths.
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The Hoop Snake (Serpentus circulus) is native to the American west, although it has also been claimed by Pennsylvania and Australia. This snake has the ability to bite its tail and form a circle, then roll like a wheel, enabling it to chase people much faster than they can run away. It has a poisonous stinger in its tail, which can kill on contact. The only reliable sightings have been in carnival sideshows. See a video of a hoop snake in action here.

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The Wild Haggis (Haggis scoticus) is native to Scotland. Their distinctive feature is that the four legs are different lengths. There are two species, one with longer legs on the left, the other with longer legs on the right. They cannot interbreed, because the male loses his balance attempting to mate. You can tell the male haggis from the female because the male only runs on a clockwise direction, and the female runs counterclockwise. Haggis is also a traditional Scottish entree (shown on the right).

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The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) is an amphibious creature native to the Olympic National Forest in Washington State. The octopus is an endangered species, with an organization devoted to its survival. The site has been used in studies to determine how easily people believe what they see on the internet.

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Ice Worms (Mesenchytraeus solifugus) are real. Scientists have studied them for years. That hasn't stopped them from also becoming a hoax used to impress tourists in the northern regions. The Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail by Robert Service established the ice worm as a myth, and bars in Alaska and Canada still serve ice worm cocktails containing a piece of cooked spaghetti. The town of Cordova, Alaska has an Ice Worm Festival every February.

This list is far from inclusive. Are there other local animal legends you can add?

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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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