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6 Extremely Rare National Animals

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You’d think the distinction of National Animal would bring with it some sort of benefit – protection from extinction, for instance. Not so. Take the Bald Eagle, symbol of these United States, which has been on and off the endangered species list for over 40 years. Sadly, this sort of thing is far from unusual. Here are six of the coolest, strangest, and most endangered animals repping countries today.

1. Belize – Baird’s Tapir (Tapirus bairdii)

Tapir image via Shutterstock

With its stubby prehensile trunk, the Baird’s tapir isn’t the prettiest belle at the ball, but it is the biggest. At a max weight of 600 lbs, the tapir’s less-than-flattering colloquial name “Mountain Cow” refers to its bovine heft, though it is more closely related to the horse and the rhino. And like the rhino, the tapir is what scientists like to call a “living fossil” -- its features have hardly changed over millions of years of evolution. (Other so-called “living fossils”: the horseshoe crab, the cœlacanth, and the okapi – see below.) As the beast’s rainforest habitat disappears, however, adaptation might not be such a bad idea. Some researchers claim that certain populations in Belize have developed a taste for Wonder bread. That’s not gonna flatter the figure.

2. Democratic Republic of Congo – Okapi (Okapia johnstoni)

Okapi image via Shutterstock

The okapi, the giraffe’s closest living relative, is like a shorter, stripier version of its cousin. Both evolved from the prehistoric paleotragus, or “ancient antelope” — though neither is a true antelope in any modern sense. After several thousand millenia keeping the ancient line alive, okapis have dwindled to the lower hundreds in recent years, due to poaching and armed conflict in the DRC. The okapi’s notorious skittishness has earned it comparison to the mythical unicorn, and rightfully so: The entire species managed to go unphotographed in the wild until 2008. The secretive creatures don’t even poop for the first 1-2 months of their lives, supposedly to avoid detection during the nesting phase. Hey, that’s kind of like the unicorn, which only poops rainbows.*

3. Pakistan – Markhor (Capra falconeri)

Markhor image via Shutterstock

Able to grow up to 240 lbs, this bad boy is the largest wild goat in the world -- as if that wasn’t obvious from the two iron-mining augers attached to his head. Its name resembles the Persian words “maar” (snake) and “khor” (eater), having earned it the misleading nickname, “snake-eating goat.” In truth, the markhor will eat a variety of things, mostly vegetable, and it is able to adapt quickly to ecological changes. Even so, it's no match for humans, who have hunted the markhor down to triple-digits. Hunting has been regulated in recent decades, but the almighty U.S. dollar can earn you a markhor head for your wall. Tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, actually, for a single snake eater.

4. Belarus – Wisent (Bison bonasus)

Wisent image via Shutterstock

A taller, leaner European cousin of the American Bison, the wisent (awesomely called zoobr in Russian) has been equally used and abused. For centuries, Belarusians hunted wisent for their meat and decorative horns, and by the early 1900s wild wisent were effectively extinct – some say as few as 12 wisent remained in captivity. Over the next decades, that tiny group was systematically bred by noblemen, then scientists, and were reintroduced to their natural forest habitat during the 1950s. As one local legend has it, the most successful population of wild wisent currently lives in the area around Chernobyl, where nuclear fallout from the 1986 disaster has kept humans away, allowing wisent to thrive. The population continues to grow, though (like many royal families) it’s pretty inbred.

5. Panama – Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja)

Harpy eagle image via Shutterstock

The terrifyingly named Harpy Eagle has a wingspan of up to seven feet and talons that can grow as big as grizzly bear paws. It also has among the thickest tarsi relative to its body size, with relatively shorter wings for maneuvering around in the jungle, aaaand it can swoop at up to 50 mph. Basically, it could kick the red-white-and-blue out of a bald eagle, any day -- this thing literally eats sloths and monkeys for breakfast. Each nesting pair of harpy eagles requires about seven square miles of rainforest in which to hunt, so they're not exactly getting enough breakfast these days.

6. Mauritius – Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Mauritians love to celebrate the Dodo, which is weird because doing that is like celebrating extinction itself. After European explorers “discovered” the island nation in the 1600s, the Mauritian dodo was quickly killed off (eaten and pushed out by domesticated animals). A single head and a foot were the only remains of the beast available to science for 200 years. Dodo remains became the holy grail for scientists in Europe, especially for two rivals: Alfred Newton and Richard Owen — an early Darwinist and a staunch anti Darwinist, respectively. Owen managed to get his dodo fossils first, but in his haste, he misarranged the bones after the most famous painting of the dodo to date: the squat, rotund version that science had previously accepted. Though Owen later rearranged the bones accurately, his mistake of a dodo went down in history, bringing his name down with it. That’s gotta make you feel like a real...well, you know.

* Not a factual fact.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.