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Really Weird Bird Anatomy

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The closer you look, the weirder Mother Nature appears. Some birds that look absolutely common on the outside have anatomical features that will surprise you.

Trombone Trachea

The trachea is also known as the windpipe. It's what we breath through. In most animals, that's all it's for. Humans have a larynx in the middle, to make noises we call speech using the moving air already there. Most birds have a simple trachea like ours, but others take in air through an extensive labyrinth. Swans have long necks, but trumpeter swans have tracheas that are three times as long as their size should indicate. It loops and coils through the breastbone in a totally unnecessary fashion, unless you are a trumpeter swan and want to make loud noises to attract the opposite sex. The same is true for cranes, as the whooping crane with its distinctive voice has the longest trachea of all crane species. The trumpet bird (Phonygammus keraudrenii), a species of bird of paradise, has the longest trachea of all, as you can see in this diagram.

These birds have a long way to breathe! The purpose of extra elongated windpipes has to be the sounds these birds make.

Trumpeter swans, Whooping cranes and Trumpet birds are the noisiest members of their respective groups, and exhibit the most complicated and elongate tracheae of their respective groups. I think we can safely infer that extinct birds with long, looping tracheae - like those moa - made loud, striking calls too.

After all, these pipes closely resemble the loops in tubas, french horns, and trumpets.

The Lake Rapist


Most male birds do not have a penis, but some that do seem to make up for the rest. The Argentine lake duck's penis is shaped like a corkscrew and can extend to 17 inches. Seventeen. Inches. The bird is only about 16 inches tall.
445_lake duck

Argentine lake ducks practice forced copulation and the females are often observed trying to get away. Possibly the long penis evolved to make reaching a female easier. Or conversely, the long penis could be the reason the females try to escape.

Woodpecker Tongue


Woodpeckers are strange birds all around. They bang their heads against trees, telephone poles, and sometimes aluminum siding, making  noises that would wake the dead. The woodpeckers in my neck of the woods are about the size of a cocker spaniel and could rip your flesh to shreds if you get too close. But those things seem almost normal when you look at a woodpecker's tongue. It has a bone, an extension of the hyoid bone found in many animals. It is quite long, in order to dip into trees and extract insects. Some woodpeckers have sticky tongues or barbed ends on the tongue to grab more insects. What's really weird is that in some woodpecker species, the tongue starts in the throat and grows up under the jaw, loops through the bird's sinuses, out one nostril, wraps around the back of the skull, and grows back inside through the other nostril!  In some species, there is a loop of tongue around the eye, which is where the excess is stored when the tongue is not in use. Also, the tongue is forked into two for part of the length, but united into one tongue at both ends.

If it weren't for the relatively photogenic hyoid bone left behind when the flesh is gone, you wouldn't believe this bizarre layout, The woodpecker's tongue is a bone of contention between creationists (who believe this bizarre configuration couldn't have evolved) and evolutionists (who say it could and did). My brother once told me that woodpeckers use their tongues to hold their brains in place while they hammer on trees. I didn't believe him. That idea doesn't seem so far-fetched now.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]