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Invasion of the Zombie Animals

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Mother Nature is not usually kind. There are creatures, usually tiny creatures, that will take over a member of another species. They will invade their host's bodies, their brains, and even their will. They turn their much-larger victims into zombies!

1. Zombie Snails -Induced Vulnerability

The flatworm Leucochloridium paradoxum infects two different animals in its lifetime, but only controls one of them. It lives its adult life inside birds and its eggs are spread by bird excretion. How does it get inside the birds? That's the horror story. Amber snails eat the eggs, which hatch in the snail's digestive tract. The larva changes into sporocysts (or broodsacs), which elongate and invade the snail's tentacles atop its head. The broodsacs, filled with hundred of Leucochloridium paradoxum, pulsate and seek light. The snail is helpless to retract its tentacles, and has lost its ability to perceive light and therefore does not hide. The inflated tentacles move like worms, attracting birds that bite off the tentacles. The flatworms then develop into the adult stage inside the bird. The snail, however, is left to die -or to undergo the process again.

2. Zombie Crabs -Slave Governess

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A barnacle named Sacculina wants to nest inside a crab. A female Sacculina will look for a place to enter the crab's body. When it does, it will leave its shell behind, not needing it anymore as it has the crab! Inside, Sacculina sets up shop, growing tendrils through the crab's body and slowly feeding on it. It castrates the crab (if male) and effectively turns the crab into a female nanny for its young. This makes the crab not only infertile but also uninterested in mating. The barnacle, on the other hand, bores a hole open in the crab's shell big enough to let male Sacculina in to mate. The zombie crab treats the Sacculina eggs and larvae as its own, having lost the will to do anything but serve its parasite master. Image credit: Hans Hillewaert.

3. Zombie Caterpillars -Slave Bodyguard

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Glyptapanteles is a wasp that lays its eggs in the body of a caterpillar. This is a three layered parasitic infection. The wasps engage the help of a virus, or more accurately a polydnavirus that has been genetically modified by the wasps, to disable the caterpillar's immune system, allowing the wasp eggs to survive. The relationship between the wasps and the virus is mutually beneficial; only the caterpillars get the short end of the stick. The eggs hatch and feed on the caterpillar, but do not kill it. Instead, the caterpillar stops developing and spends the rest of its life protecting the wasp larva, even going as far as spinning its own cocoon around the wasp pupae. Watch a video of the entire process. When the adult wasp emerges from its cocoon, the zombie caterpillar finally tastes the sweet release of death.

4. Zombie Grasshoppers -Induced Suicide

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The parasitic hairworm Spinochordodes tellinii is deadly to grasshoppers. Once eaten by a grasshopper or cricket, the larval worm produces proteins that affect the insect's brain and nervous system. By the time the worm reaches adulthood, the insect is completely under its power. The zombie grasshopper commits suicide by jumping into water, where the worm will emerge and look for a mate.

5. Zombie Fish -Luring Its Killer

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The parasitic worm Euhaplorchis californiensis infects three other species in a cycle, and alters the behavior of two of them. First, the eggs are consumed by horn snails. While living inside a snail, sometimes for several generations, Euhaplorchis inhibits the snail's fertility. The parasite will eventually leave the snail and infect the gills of a killifish. The worms will surround the fish's brain and cause it to swim near the surface and wiggle around. This makes the fish more likely to be eaten by a bird, which is what Euhaplorchis wanted in the first place. The digestive system of a bird is where the worm lays its eggs, which are excreted onto the beach where snails can reach them.

6. Zombie Ants -Serving the Impostors

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Even butterflies can make other species into zombies! Maculina rebeli, a European butterfly, lay eggs that exude the scent of ant queens. Worker ants welcome them into their colony. The butterflies emerge as caterpillars which are fed by the ants. The ants treat them as their own young, or even better than ordinary ant larvae since they perceive the caterpillars to be queen ant larvae. Worker ants will even defend the caterpillars against their own queen! You may think of ants as zombies already, but they normally only serve their own species.

7. Zombie Fish Tongue -Artificial Organ

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Cymothoa exigua is a small crustacean found off the coast of California. You don't have to worry about it unless you are a spotted rose snapper. C. exigua invades the mouth of these fish and grabs onto the base of the tongue, pinching off the blood supply and drinking it. As the tongue atrophies, the fish begins to use the little isopod as a replacement tongue. Meanwhile, C. exigua lives its life inside the fish's mouth, drinking blood and fish slime from the tongue's stump. Other than the loss of its tongue, the fish suffers little from the experience, so the two can share a normal, if creepy, lifespan.

8. Zombie Cockroach -Commandeered Nursery

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The Emerald Cockroach Wasp (Ampulex compressa) makes a slave out a much larger cockroach. The wasp will sting the roach twice, paralyzing its front legs and taking the escape reflex away from its brain. Then the wasp will chew off half of the roach's antennae and uses what's left to steer the roach to a prepared nest. The wasp lays an egg on the roach's abdomen and leaves. The egg will hatch and feed off the roach, which still won't try to escape. The wasp larvae keeps the docile roach alive long enough to build a cocoon inside the roach's body and transform into an adult wasp. An adult female wasp can enslave and lays eggs on several dozen zombie roaches.

chestburster.jpgAre there organisms that will have effects like this on human behavior? I believe there may be, but the voices in my head tell me they are a secret.

Update: Also see the sequel to this post, 7 More Zombie Animals

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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