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8 Prehistoric Creatures from Your Nightmares

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We see fossil reconstructions or illustrations of species that have come and gone and we sometimes say, "Come on now, that can't be real!" Or maybe you don't, but I have, because these creatures look like they came from a horror film or a child's most frightening nightmares.

1. The Creature: Platybelodon
The Nightmare: Pink Elephants on Parade on Acid

Quick -how many prehistoric relatives of the elephant can you name? Mammoth, mastodon, and ...that's it, right? Meet Platybelodon. Even the minds who conceived Heffalumps and Snuffleupagus would consider this creature to be too ridiculous to believe. When I first encountered Platybelodon in this illustration by DeviantART member Sk00tie, I thought the artist had made up the species. But no...

Platybelodon was a "shovel tusker". Ten million years ago, it roamed Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America, eating trees and plants that grow in swamps. It is one of several ancient elephants from the Gomphothere family. See more of Platybelodon in a YouTube video.

2. The Creature: Bullockornis
The Nightmare: The Demon Duck of Doom

What looks a bit like a duck, but is eight feet tall and eats wombats? Bullockornis planei was a bird that roamed Australia as far back as 15 million years ago, but possibly also survived to see mankind.

A giant skull found a few years ago led scientists to believe Bullockornis was omnivorous, and devoured other animals whole. This bird earned the nickname the Demon Duck of Doom.

3. The Creature: Opabinia
The Nightmare: Nunu with Five Eyes

Opabinia regalis flourished 500 million years ago during the Cambrian period. This odd creature had five eyes, two of them on stalks, and a proboscis resembling a vacuum cleaner hose that made up about a third of its body length. Just think of the Teletubbies' Nunu with extra eyeballs! Fossil specimens are pretty small -shorter than your finger- but there is speculation that these were juveniles and the creature may have grown bigger. Opabinia is a creature that so far defies classification. Should it be labeled an arthropod or an annelid, related to crustaceans or trilobites? It may be an ancient ancestor of them all. Illustration by Nobu Tamura.

4. The Creature: Quetzalcoatlus
The Nightmare: Flying Dragon Wants to Eat You

Quetzalcoatlus northropi may have been the largest flying animal ever. The estimated wingspan gleaned from fossil evidence is 36 feet, although earlier extrapolations put it as high as 60 feet. Either way, that's a big animal. It took a lot of muscle power to get 500 pounds off the ground! This pterosaur lived about 65 million years ago. Quetzalcoatlus northropi ate dinosaurs for breakfast, which is enough to fuel anyone's nightmares. Illustration by Mark Witton and Darren Naish.

5. The Creature: Titanoboa
The Nightmare: Big Snake

The name Titanoboa means "big snake." The species Titanoboa cerrejonensis is the biggest snake ever discovered, which was about four years ago in Colombia. The fossil remains of a couple of dozen such snakes were studied, leading scientists to estimate their size at a maximum 15 meters, or 50 feet! Titanoboa cerrejonensis was a constrictor that lived around 60 million years ago, eating animals the size of crocodiles -whole. Illustration by Jason Bourque.

6. The Creature: Dunkleosteus
The Nighmare: Jaws with Armor

You might have seen this scary fish, if you had been around 400 million years ago. Dunkleosteus was an armored fish that grew to be twenty feet long and had sharp teeth in massive jaws that could slice through bones. Scientists have been divided on how to classify Dunkleosteus among fish, since evidence discovered at different times links it to different types of existing species.

DeviantART member DNK-Anais gives us this illustration of how terrifying Dunkleosteus would seem to other sea creatures and any land animal that got too close.

7. The Creature: Procoptodon
The Nightmare: A Hairy Grinch with Claws

Procoptodon goliah was a giant short-faced kangaroo. It was about twice the weight of the modern red kangaroo (but not much taller), and hopped around on feet that had one toe each! It ate only plants, and could stretch to reach branches 12 feet above ground. This kangaroo had eyes that faced forward, which gave it the ability to see depth and a resemblance to the Grinch from the Dr. Seuss book. There were also smaller species of Procoptodon, which were all extinct by 40,000 years ago.

8. The Creature: Pristerognathus
The Nightmare: What's Behind the "Beware of Dog" Sign

The genus Pristerognathus were animals that lived 250 million years ago in Africa. They are Therocephalians, which are reptiles that have mammalian characteristics. One of the few things we know about Pristerognathus is that it was carnivorous and had a huge head compared to the rest of its body, and most of that head was jaws and teeth. However, the whole animal was about the size of a house cat. Illustration by Dmitri Bogdanov.

See also: The Bigger They Are: 10 Ice Age Giants

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”