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Animal Prosthetics: A Leg Up on a Bad Break

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Amputee animals have a hard life. In the last few years, more and more disabled creatures of different species are being helped by modern technology, and by the researchers and volunteers who go the extra mile.

Fuji's Rubber Tail

Fuji is a dolphin who lives in an aquarium in Okinawa. A mysterious illness in 2002 caused her tail to rot, and it was amputated to stop the spread of the disease. Without a tail, a dolphin can't swim. Engineers from Bridgestone Tire Company worked to design a new rubber tail for Fuji. The first designs did not work properly or had some other drawback. Finally, Fuji accepted the third tail design, made of silicon rubber with a foam padding, and was able to swim almost as well as an intact dolphin.

Uzonka and Beauty and their New Beaks

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When a bird's beak is damaged, it may not be able to eat, drink, or hunt properly and could die as a result. Uzonka the stork had her bill damaged by human assault. She received a prosthetic beak after five preparatory operations and is in the care of an animal hospital in Uzon, Romania.

beauty.jpgBeauty is an Alaskan bald eagle whose beak was shot off several years ago. She was found in 2005, unable to properly hunt or eat. She was taken to a refuge, but her beak did not grow back. Beauty will receive a nylon-composite beak next month. A new beak attached with screws would enable her to hunt, but the animal experts in charge of the surgery decided against it, because the screws would have to be dangerously close to her eyes and brain. Instead, her prosthetic beak will be attached with glue. Beauty must stay in human custody, where she will be fed and protected.

George Bailey's Implanted Leg

prosthesis.jpgA cat named George Bailey was born with only stumps for hind legs. He got around by dragging his rear end. Veterinarians and engineers from North Carolina State University tackled the problem in a new way. Instead of attaching a limb over a stump, they attached an artificial limb to his bones. The hope was that the existing bone tissue would grow around the prosthetic, a process called osseointegration. Using a cat scan of the cat, they created a model of George's pelvis and leg bones and designed a lower leg and foot. In 2005, the team implanted a titanium post into George's stump, to which the prosthetic leg could be attached. George was soon running and jumping on his new leg. Animals that normally walk on four legs usually get along just fine with three. George took great advantage of his new mobility, and was so rambunctious that in two months, he broke the titanium nails that were holding his leg in place. The prosthetic limb had to be removed.

Storm's Carbon Fiber Paw

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A Belgium shepherd named Storm had a similar surgery performed in England in 2007. Storm had lost a front paw due to a tumor. A titanium rod was implanted in the dog's radius, and a carbon fiber paw was later plugged into the rod.

Stumpy the Kangaroo

MFstumpyKangaroo.jpgStumpy the red kangaroo lives in Ohio, at the International Kangaroo Society's sanctuary. She only has one leg. Veterinarians at Ohio State University created an artificial limb for her. Dr. David E. Anderson, Associate Professor of Surgery, Food Animal, of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Richard Nitsch, a licensed prosthesis orthotist for American Orthopedics, made sure it included a spring to replicate the natural movement of a kangaroo.

Allison the Triple Amputee Sea Turtle

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Allison is a three-year-old Atlantic Green sea turtle. She was found in south Texas with only one fin, bleeding from where the other three should be. She was taken to Sea Turtle Inc, a turtle conservation facility, where she healed up against the odds. Allison can swim with just one fin, but only in circles. In February, medical and veterinary volunteers announced they would fit her with a prosthetic flipper on her left rear, where she has enough one to support one. There have been no updates, so the procedure probably hasn't taken place yet.

George the Pegleg Parrot

georgeparrot.jpgGeorge the African Gray parrot lost a leg 18 months ago when he was attacked by an unidentified wild animal. Since then, he's had a hard time getting any sleep, as he tries to balance on one foot. It even drove him to swearing! But Dr. Glyn Heath of the University of Salford's School of Health Care Professions designed an artificial leg for George. Although Dr. Heath has made many false limbs for animals, this was his first prosthetic for a bird. This particular leg wasn't fitted on George himself, but attached to his perch. The idea was that George could sit on it and balance himself enough to get some sleep. However, George wasn't impressed with his prosthetic. In fact, he ate it.

Tahi the Kiwi

MFtahi.jpgKiwi birds do not fly; they walk on two legs. So when Tahi lost a leg in a trap, he could do nothing but hop. The New Zealand zoo where the kiwi lived turned to the Wellington Artificial Limb Board and Weta Workshop, the team responsible for the special effects in the Lord of the Rings movies. The Weta crew made a mold of the bird's stump, and the Limb Board made an articulated (bendable) limb, the smallest they've ever made. Tahi can now stand, and is learning to run with his new leg.

Motala and Mocha Survive Land Mines

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Motala the elephant stepped on a land mine near the Thai-Burma border in 1999. Veterinarians were able to repair her front leg, but it was left much shorter than the others. At Friends of the Asian Elephant's hospital in Thailand, Motala began using a prosthetic leg in 2005. The prosthesis is a bag filled with wood shavings, which makes her damaged leg as long as the others. She accepted the attachment, and is still using the same kind of prosthetic leg. You can follow Motala's life in pictures at her webpage.

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A very young elephant named Mocha found herself in the much the same situation after an encounter with a land mine near the border with Burma. Mocha was fitted with a new leg earlier this year, also from the Friends of the Asian Elephant organization in Thailand.

Artificial limbs have been fitted on horses, llamas, and cows, and probably plenty of other animals.

Other prosthetics are available, too. A group of students are opening a business to produce dentures for cats. But the strangest prosthetics are Neuticles, which are implanted testicles for dogs who has been neutered. It's purely for cosmetic reasons.

It may seem extravagant to fit prosthetics on animals that have a relatively short life span, but it makes a big difference in the quality of life for that particular animal. It also enhances the quality of life for the animal's owner. The experience of fitting artificial limbs to animals leads to innovations in human prosthetics. And after all, most of these animals are missing their natural parts because of humans.

PS: Here is one reaction to this story that you must read for its incredible cuteness.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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