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Interspecies Mommying

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Look, I'm cynical and abrasive, but even I get gooey when it comes to stuff like this. What happens when animals lose their mothers? Well, erm. They usually die. But sometimes they don't. (Trying to be optimistic here. Happy Mother's Day!) Sometimes they get adopted—sometimes by completely different species. And it's awkward, but usually quite cute, and also reassuring to know that despite biological differences, different species can coexist peacefully, and that maternal instincts cross species lines. Here are some of the most famous interspecies adoptions set in three installments for Mother's Day weekend. Check back tomorrow and Monday for parts two and three.

Koko and the Kitten

Koko is a lowland gorilla who has been taught by scientists at Stanford University to communicate in sign language. In 1984 she asked her trainer, Dr. Francine Patterson, for a pet cat. Koko named the pet manx cat "All Ball" and cared for the kitten as if he were a baby gorilla. She would carry All Ball on her back and cuddle him, even dress the cat up in napkins. Three days after All Ball was hit by a car and killed, Dr. Patterson signed with Koko and this was her response:

Dr. Patterson: Do you want to talk about your kitty?
Koko: Cry.
Dr. Patterson: What happened to your kitty?
Koko: Sleep cat.
Dr. Patterson: Yes, he's sleeping.

Koko surprised many researchers by exhibiting the very human emotion of grief. Since All Ball's death, Koko has raised several other kittens, including "Lipstick" and "Smokey." [Image courtesy of Koko.org.]

Baby Macaque? Coo!

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In Goangdong, China, a baby macaque was adopted by a pigeon. Apparently the wee monkey was abandoned by his mother and near death despite the best efforts of rescue workers. That is, until this white pigeon...took him under her wing. Morale boost! Oh goodness. Don't get me started. ::coos::

And You Think YOUR Mother is Dysfunctional?

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In Kenya, Kamunyak has tried to adopt six times. These adoptions have all been rather unsuccessful. This is because Kamunyak is a lioness who likes to kidnap and adopt oryx calves.

Kamunyak lived alone, which made her unique among the lions in her territory at the Samburu Reserve. Even though oryx, a species of antelope, is usually lion food, Kamunyak kidnapped her first Oryx in December 2002 and tried to raise him as her own. Initially, she scared off the mother oryx before relenting and allowing the mother oryx to occassionally approach and feed the calf. After feedings, Kamunyak would then chase the mother oryx away.

This did not end well for a number of reasons. For example, oryx are prey animals and constantly eating and often awake. Lions, on the other hand, are rather languid and nocturnal. The lioness became sleep deprived and emaciated in order to keep an eye on her charge. On day sixteen, a male lion happened upon mother and adopted baby and gobbled the oryx up. African Lions tend to be pretty aggressive towards cubs sired by other lions. This oryx was clearly not his scion. (He also looked tasty.)

Depressed (very depressed, as she was seen roaring in anger at the male lion,) Kamunyak soon kidnapped another oryx before it was rescued by Kenya Wildlife Services. The third and fourth oryx she tried to adopt were rescued by their mothers. The fifth one starved to death (lions and oryx do not have very compatible diets) and the sixth one escaped.

Kamunyak was last seen in 2004. There are several theories that attempt to explain her strange behavior, including hormonal imbalances due ovarian tumors or bad eyesight, but her behavior made clear she wasn't interested in the oryx as a food source, but as a child. [Image courtesy of Saba Douglas-Hamilton, whose film about Kamunyak is called Heart of a Lioness.]

And Humans Do It, Too

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In Tripura, India, Namita Das suckles her pet monkey, whom she describes as her son. After a fierce storm, Namita's husband rescued the monkey from under a tree, and Namita decided to raise him alongside her two daughters. She says Buru the monkey is the son she has always wanted, and has been breastfeeding him for five years.

Tortoise Adopts Hippo, Cuteness Ensues

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On December 26, 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered Tsunamis around the world and orphaned a baby hippopotamus off the coast of Malindi, Kenya. Owen was rescued with the help of several villagers and taken to Haller Park, where he befriended 130 year old Mzee, an Aldabran tortoise. Some conservationists think that since Mzee is large, round, and grey, Owen may have confuzed Mzee for a mother hippo.

Although Mzee was initially disinterested in Owen, the two grew to like each other and Owen began learning from Mzee as he would from a parent, browsing on leaves and branches instead of grazing like other hippos. The two roused each other for meals, wallowed in the pond, and snuggled up together to sleep. As Owen grew to adulthood he was introduced to a female hippo friend, Cleo, and when became more dangerous for the three to be together (don't smoosh Mzee!) they were eventually separated. These days Owen is adapting to life as a hippo with his girlfriend Cleo, while Mzee has been reunited with his female friend Toto the Tortoise. [Image courtesy of Owen & Mzee's website.]

Check out Part II, featuring mother dogs and random cuteness.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
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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