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4 Animals You Can Only Find in Zoos

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People go to zoos to see the animals from exotic locales we couldn’t get to on our own. But some of these animals can’t be seen anywhere except zoos. These are the animals that are extinct in the wild, dependent on the keepers and zoo breeding programs for their very survival. Here are a few animals that you can only find in zoos, and two that have been re-released into the wild.

1. New Guinea Singing Dog

While scientists argue about this adorable canid’s taxonomic status, some even classifying them with domestic dogs, they do have a distinct genetic code and are unique from all other existing canines.

The first of these dogs to be studied was taken from New Guinea in 1897, but because they were largely considered feral dogs, not a special breed or species, little research was performed on the animals until much later. This delayed any protection of the dogs in the wild, although their numbers drastically declined in the twentieth century until there were no more left. There have not been any sightings of the animals in the wild since 1970. There are a number of the dogs in captivity in zoos around the world but, unfortunately, they have been largely inbred from a small genetic pool so it is unclear if the population can ever be restored.

[Image courtesy of whatadqr's Flickr stream.]

2. Pinta Island Tortoise

If you’re a regular Mental Floss reader, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Lonesome George, but just in case, here’s a quick recap of the world’s most lonely tortoise. The Pinta Island tortoises are one of the many subspecies of Galapagos tortoises, but what makes this specific breed so special is the fact that there is only one known to be in existence. That would be poor Lonesome George.

George was discovered on Pinta Island on December 1, 1971, after the island’s vegetation was destroyed by feral goats. He was rescued from the island and brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where he would have plenty of food to munch on. George was penned with two females of other Galapagos subspecies, but while they have laid eggs, none have been fertile. George is estimated to be around 100 years old (reasonably young for a tortoise) and he’s very healthy, so he should be in his reproductive prime. Scientists are offering a reward of $10,000 for anyone who discovers a female Pinta Island tortoise who may help save the subspecies.

[Image courtesy of putneymark's Flickr stream.]

3. Kihansi Spray Toad

This toad’s natural habitat was limited to the spray zone of two waterfalls in Tanzania. The toads relied on the water spray to provide them with oxygen. After a dam was built upstream from the waterfalls, the spray was reduced by 90%, causing an immediate reduction in the toad population. To make matters worse, as conservationists tried to step in and help the toads by installing the world’s largest sprinkler system, they accidentally tracked in a deadly fungus, which decimated the toad population.

Fortunately, before the dam was built, some of the animals were put in captivity. Since the animals disappeared from the wild, the Toledo Zoo, the Bronx Zoo and the Chattanooga Zoo started captive breeding programs with their Kihansi spray toad populations. Until last year, these were the only places where the spray toads survived, but in 2010, 100 toads were flown from the Bronx and Toledo Zoos to Tanzania. While they are now back in their native land, there are still no plans to re-release them into their natural habitat, which is still impacted by the dam.

4. Micronesian Kingfisher

Like many island animals, the Micronesian kingfisher was perfectly adapted to its native habitat in Guam. But with one small change, its existence was suddenly changed forever. It all started in WWII, when brown tree snakes were introduced to the island. Guam never had any large native snakes and the birds had no defense mechanisms against the fast tree dweller.

As time wore on, the bird’s population began to drastically decline, but no one realized the snakes were to blame until 1983. By that time, it was too late to stop the snakes. Scientists captured the remaining 29 kingfishers on the island and put them in zoos with breeding programs. By 1988, there were no more wild kingfishers on Guam.

Since the animals were introduced to zoos, the population doubled to around 60. Unfortunately, the captive birds have showed aggression to one another, so the chicks have to be raised by zoo staff members to ensure their safety. Before scientists can hope to reintroduce the birds to the wild, they must better understand the bird’s nutritional needs and the reason for their aggression. All of these challenges mean it will probably be a long while before there are more Micronesian kingfishers in the wild.

[Image courtesy of coracii's Flickr stream.]

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It’s not all doom and gloom for animals that have become extinct in the wild, though. While the term is often used interchangeably with “functionally extinct,” many of these animals do make a comeback thanks to captive breeding programs. Here are a few animals that were once extinct in the wild, but have since been reintroduced into their home territory.

Guam Rail

Like their islandmates the Micronesian kingfishers, the Guam rail evolved in the absence of any predatory snakes and were eradicated by the introduction of the brown tree snake. They were also removed from the wild around the same time as the kingfishers and entered into a breeding program. Unlike the kingfishers though, the rails did very well in their program. After 20 years, the population increased enough that the birds were able to be released back into the wild. Because the brown tree snakes made Guam unsuitable for the birds, they were instead released into the wild on the nearby island of Rota in the Northern Mariana Islands.

There are currently seventeen zoos participating in the Guam rail breeding program, working to further increase the viability of this highly endangered species.

California Condor

Condors naturally have a low birthing rate and a late age of sexual maturity, so when they started to fall victim to environmental hazards such as DDT and lead poisoning from eating animals killed with lead buckshot, they had a hard time building their numbers back up.  By 1987, there were only 22 condors left in the wild, all of which were captured for a captive breeding program.

Because the condors lay only one egg at a time and wait a long time between clutches, the zoologists involved took the first egg laid by the birds, incubated it, and raised the chick themselves. The birds would then lay a second fertile egg, meaning researchers could double the number of chicks born at the zoo.

The program was incredibly successful. Within only four years, researchers were able to release some of the birds back into the wild. The program has continued to produce birds in captivity, but the wild birds have started breeding on their own as well. Before being released, the birds are now trained to avoid power lines and wind turbines. California has also passed a law banning hunting with lead buckshot in the California condor's habitat to protect the birds from lead poisoning. There are currently 189 birds living in zoos and 192 in the wild—a far cry from the 22 individuals left when the breeding program began.

[Image courtesy of primatewrangler's Flickr stream.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]