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5 Deadly Animals That Might Just Save Your Life

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This article was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker & Laurel Mills, and appears in the March-April 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Sure, you know these five creatures as stinging, biting merchants of death. But isn't it time we put aside our differences and embraced the positive?

1. Poison Dart Frogs: The Heart-Healthy Choice

It Could Kill You: You know an animal is bad news when its sweat was once considered a state-of-the-art military technology. Meet the poison dart frog, which secretes a highly dangerous neurotoxin, called batrachotoxin, through its pores. In fact, various Latin American tribes used to collect the stuff (carefully) to poison the tips of their arrows for hunting and warfare. Interestingly, however, the frogs don't produce their own toxin. They get it from eating insects that most likely pick up the poison from the plants they consume. The same frogs, if raised in a laboratory rather than the rain forest, aren't poisonous at all.

But It Just Might Cure You: Before batrachotoxin stops your heart, it speeds it up. Consequently, medical experts believe it might be possible to tweak elements of the frog's toxin to bring patients out of cardiac arrest and potentially save lives. And because it also deadens nerve endings, batrachotoxin has potential as an ingredient in anesthetics. Studies into other uses of the toxin are still in the early stages, but the frog's medical benefits bolster the argument for preserving the rainforest. Most scientists believe we've only just begun to grasp the pharmaceutical possibilities of some of the world's rarest and deadliest creatures. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

2. Scorpions: Leading the battle against Brain Cancer

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It Could Kill You: For the most part, scorpions use their toxins to capture prey, ward off competitors during mating season, and defend themselves against larger predators. Unfortunately, humans count as larger predators. A sting by some species can leave you with any number of potentially deadly conditions, including heart and lung failure.

But It Just Might Cure You: Medical researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) have discovered a new use for scorpion venom—in cancer medication. Each year, some 9,000 Americans are diagnosed with malignant glioma, a form of brain cancer that kills about half its victims within a year of diagnosis.

Glioma cells work a lot like cockroach muscle cells. And while that fact is pretty disgusting, it also got UAB researchers thinking about the giant Israeli scorpion, whose venom is harmless to humans but deadly to its cockroach prey. Doctors found that when they injected a drug derived from the venom of giant Israeli scorpions into cancer-infected human brains, the poison destroyed the glioma cells and left surrounding, healthy cells alone. The treatment is still in the early stages of development, but researchers remain optimistic. [Image courtesy of No-Pest.com.]

3. Cone Shell Snails: Little Creatures Tackling Big Pain

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It Could Kill You: Thanks to their unique colors and intricate patterns, cone shells look like they'd make great beach souvenirs. But watch your fingers; they're actually home to one of the world's deadliest creatures. Cone shell snails come equipped with an extendable "arm"—complete with a sharp, venomous tooth—that they use to immobilize and kill prey. And while the venom certainly helps the slow-moving hunters from going hungry, it can also paralyze, or even kill, victims. The good news: Death by cone shell is completely painless.

But It Just Might Cure You: Cone shell venom, called conotoxin, has incredible potential as a painkiller, with one added bonus: Unlike many current anesthetics, conotoxin isn't addictive. In 2005, Ireland-based Elan Pharmaceuticals became the first company to market a drug made from the venom. Called Prialt, the drug is pumped into the fluid around a patient's spine to relieve chronic pain and is believed to be up to 1,000 times more powerful than morphine. Meanwhile, at the University of Melbourne, a research team headed by Professor Bruce Livett is currently developing another conotoxin-based painkiller called ACV1, which was first tested on humans in the summer of 2005. Unlike Prialt, however, ACV1 doesn't affect a patient's blood pressure and can be injected under the skin, making it a lot less intimidating. Plus, ACV1 is believed to be as much as 10,000 times stronger than morphine. [Image courtesy of Britannica.com.]

4. Vipers: Lowering Your Blood Pressure Since 1981

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It Could Kill You: Most vipers are scary enough as is, but jararaca vipers are venomous to boot. But what's truly fascinating is the unique way their venom works. Unlike a traditional toxin, viper venom functions by preventing the blood from clotting, meaning the snakes actually kill their victims by causing them to bleed to death.

But It Just Might Cure You: Lucky for us, slow-clotting blood isn't always a bad thing. Researchers have found that small doses of viper venom can prevent arteries from hardening, thus stopping the kinds of blood clots that commonly occur in cardiac patients. In fact, jararaca viper venom (or at least a synthesized version of it) is a key ingredient in most of today's ACE inhibitors. Introduced in 1981, ACE inhibitors work by slowing down the body's angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE). When left untreated, the enzyme can produce a peptide that causes muscle constriction around blood vessels. That kind of constriction can set off a chain reaction whereby a person's blood vessels narrow and his or her blood pressure shoots through the roof, leading to greater risk of heart attack and other ailments. Because the ACE inhibitors can stop this domino effect, they're frequently used to treat millions of men and women with high blood pressure. [Image courtesy of The Sun.]

5. Gila Monsters: Attacking Type 2 Diabetes

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It Could Kill You: One of only two species of venomous lizards, the Gila monster is native to southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Unlike other deadly critters, Gila monsters don't inject venom directly into their victims. Instead, poison oozes from the lizard's teeth into the open wounds of its prey, usually while the Gila monster is chewing. Because of this, human fatalities from Gila monster bites are rare, but a bite can cause intense pain, nausea, swelling, fatigue, dizziness, and chills—none of which is particularly fun.

But It Just Might Cure You: In addition to causing all those nasty side effects, Gila monster venom stimulates insulin production and slows down glucose production, which is great news for diabetics. Byetta, a drug manufactured by Amylin Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly & Company to treat Type 2 diabetes, uses a manufactured form of Gila monster venom as its main ingredient. Approved by the FDA in April of 2005, Byetta is injected before meals to help their bodies produce the right amount of insulin at the right time—the best part being that it doesn't cause the mood swings often associated with traditional insulin regimens. [Image courtesy of Animal-World.com.]
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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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