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6 Horrifying Parasites (Kevin Federline isn't one of them)

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By Chris Connolly

These life-sucking go-getters have managed to carve out some of the most ingenious survival strategies in the world. By some estimates, parasites outnumber free-living species nearly four to one. So show some respect. After all, mooching isn't as easy as it looks.

1. Cymothoa exigua: Biting Your Tongue, So You Don't Have To

When fish mommies want to strike fear in the hearts of their misbehaving fish babies, we suspect they draw on the chilling animal savagery of the Cymothoa exigua. As a youngster, this nasty little parasitic crustacean begins a life of terror by fighting its way through the gills of its fish host of choice, the snapper. Once there, it attaches itself to the fish's tongue and begins feeding on the rich blood pumping through the artery underneath. As the parasite grows, it drinks more blood and eventually causes the tongue to atrophy and disintegrate. But does the Cymothoa mouth-squatter leave its fishy friend tongueless? Of course not. It does what any crafty parasite would do and replaces the old tongue with its own body. The fish is actually able to use the parasite just like a normal tongue, only it has to share all the food with its new friend. Yes, the whole foster-tongue thing seems like a pretty nice gesture on the part of ol' Cymothoa—until you remember there was nothing wrong with the fish's old tongue in the first place.

2. Screwworms: Causing Problems Right out of the Hatch

Plenty more (disgusting) creatures after the jump...

worms.jpgThe screwworm isn't really a worm at all; it's a type of fly. But if living under a false name were the worst of the screwworm's misdeeds, you can be sure it wouldn't appear in this story. No, this parasite's rap sheet is about to get much, much more disturbing. To find its host, an adult female screwworm seeks out exposed flesh on an animal (usually some sort of livestock, but an injured soldier or a human baby isn't out of the question) in search of a place to lay her eggs. She prefers wounds, but may also settle on using the eyes, nostrils, or anus of her victim to construct a nursery. Next, the 200-or-so eggs hatch, and the larvae start burrowing into their host's flesh. Once they're situated in their cozy little meat tunnels, the infant flies continue to feed and grow. The bigger they get, the more they have to eat. Eventually, this creates a whole lot of festering and oozing on the host, which attracts more flies, which lay more eggs, which do more feeding and burrowing. It's a brutal onslaught, and a swift one. Screwworm larvae are reportedly capable of consuming an entire sheep or dog from the inside out in five to seven days.

3. Sacculina carcini: Reasons You Shouldn't Pick up a Hitchhiker

Sacculinacarciniweb.jpgIf you ever have a choice between being possessed by the devil and being possessed by a Sacculina carcini, opt for the devil—no contest. A female sacculina begins life as a tiny free-floating slug in the sea, drifting around until she encounters a crab. When that fateful day arrives, she finds a chink in the crab's armor (usually an elbow or leg joint) and thrusts a kind of hollow dagger into its body. After that, she (how to put this?) "injects" herself into the crab, sluicing through the dagger and leaving behind a husk. Once inside, the jellylike sacculina starts to take over. She grows "roots" that extend to every part of the crab's body—wrapping around its eyestalks and deep into its legs and arms. The female feeds and grows until eventually she pops out the top of the crab, and from this knobby protrusion, she will steer the Good Ship Unlucky Crab for the rest of their commingled life. Packed full of parasite, the crab will forgo its own needs to serve those of its master. It won't molt, grow reproductive organs, or attempt to reproduce. It won't even regrow appendages, as healthy crabs can. Rather than waste the nutrients on itself, a host crab will hobble along and continue to look for food with which to feed its parasite master.

4. Filarial Worms: Proof You Need Thicker Skin

lf2.jpgFilarial worms are the nasty little suckers you can thank for lymphatic filariasis, which, according to the Pacific Program to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis, is the second-leading cause of permanent and long-term disability in the world. (Mental illness is No. 1.) Filarial worms are round, thread-like parasites that travel from human to human via that harbinger of disease transmission, the mosquito. How do they make the leap of host? In an interesting (if scary) example of parasite ingenuity, filarial worm embryos living underneath the skin can sense the onset of night, which is their cue to head upward to the skin's surface in order to increase their chances of being picked up by a passing 'skeeter. Should they get sucked up, they grow into larvae within the mosquito's muscle fibers and then get themselves injected into new hosts. Once they've returned to a human home, they open up a franchise in the family business—Wreaking Havoc. Filaria often lodge in the body's lymphatic system, where they can inflict any number of torturous symptoms, not the least of which involves carting your genitals off to the elephantiasis clinic in a wheelbarrow.

5. Guinea Worms: Exposing Parts Nobody Wants to See

guinea-worm.jpgWhere there are guinea worms, there is Guinea Worm Disease—and that's usually in Africa. When a human consumes water contaminated with guinea worms, the little buggers infiltrate their host's intestinal walls and commence mating. After conception, the males die off, and the females hang around for about a year, growing and eating. Eventually, these slender ladies get bored and decide they need to lay some eggs. To do so, they make their way down the body to the lower extremities, where they bore a small hole through the skin. The resulting lesion begins to fester and burn, which usually leads the host to plunge his or her foot into a soothing bucket of water. (Of course, in areas where an entire village shares a single water source, this helps spread the infection.) Unfortunately for the sufferer, the water doesn't solve the problem of having a three-foot female worm dangling its genitalia out of your foot. And to complicate matters, if you yank on that sucker, it'll break apart and could cause a fatal infection. So how do you rid yourself of the not-so-little hitchhiker? You go see a doctor, who—over the course of three or four weeks—will kindly wind the worm around a stick, inch by agonizing inch. Not the most pleasant method, but certainly a proven one. This cure for a guinea worm infection has been around so long, some believe it's where we get the snakes-around-a-staff symbol for medicine.

6. Leucochloridium paradoxum: Parasite for Sore Eyes

mimicry_2.jpgPrepare to be dazzled. This parasite's got a life cycle more mind-bending and chilling than an M. Night Shyamalan film. Leucochloridium paradoxum are a type of fluke (a.k.a., parasitic flatworm) that prey on birds—a fascinating turn of events considering they begin their lives as eggs in bird droppings. Thus, the problem facing baby Leucochloridium paradoxum is, "How do I get myself back into one of those feathery things?" Taking a page from Greek history, the infant flatworms rely on Trojan trickery. First, they hang out in the droppings until a snail happens along and eats the bird dung. Then they initiate their devious plan of action by taking up residence in the snail's eyestalks. (Sure, it sounds slimy and gross to us, but after a childhood spent living in bird feces, it's a step up.) As they mature, the flukes become visible through the snail's translucent skin. And that's when things really get interesting. To a bird, this fluke-filled eyestalk looks like a caterpillar. So the bird devours the stalk and ends up with a bellyful of Leucochloridium paradoxum that will, of course, lay eggs and begin the cycle again. Meanwhile, the snail shakes its head, shops for an eye patch, and vows never to eat feces again.

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Ed. note: We thought the parasites were so horrifying that we decided to get the very talented Randy Riggs to film a B-horror movie around the subject. Here's the trailer for what he came up with.

This article was pulled from an earlier edition of mental_floss. Make our editors happy and subscribe today.

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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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