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Messing with Mother Nature: The Macquarie Island Ecosystem

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The story of the Macquarie Island ecosystem may remind you of the song about the woman who swallowed a fly. The island was exploited mercilessly, but various plans to repair the damage had their own unintended consequences. Introducing a non-native species to control another invasive species can backfire and escalate the situation to ridiculous and tragic levels.

Macquarie Island, part of the Australian state of Tasmania, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island lies in a spot where tectonic plates meet, about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, and has unique geological significance. Macquarie is a breeding ground for aquatic life, particularly elephant seals and royal penguins. It is also home to other seals and penguins, several species of albatross and other sea birds, plus a few dozen wildlife scientists and park rangers who work there on a temporary basis. The seals and penguins had no natural enemies on the island until Europeans arrived in 1810. Since then, humans have hatched schemes to either exploit or repair the Macquarie Island ecosystem. Most of these schemes caused further problems.

Polynesians may have inhabited the island in the distant past, but there were no people there when it was discovered by Captain Frederick Hasselborough of the ship Perseverance in 1810. He was looking for seals, and Macquarie Island proved to be a bounty. Fur seals and then elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction on the island. When the seal supply ebbed, penguins were hunted for their oil. Photograph by Wikipedia user Hullwarren.

Meanwhile, any place on earth that was visited by exploring ships ran the risk of introducing rats to the ecosystem. Macquarie Island had no rodents before the seal hunting began, but mice and rats began to flourish soon afterward. Photograph by Wikipedia user Kilessan.

Seafarers knew how to control rats. Most ships had a cat or two just for this purpose. Within ten years of the commencement of sealing, there were feral cats on the island. While rats are omnivores, they only become predators when the easier food is in short supply. Some species of fur seals eat penguins, but the cats were the first land-based true predators on the island. In addition to rodents, the cats ate seabirds.

William Elder of the Otago Whaling Company brought rabbits to the island as a food source in 1870. They, of course, bred like rabbits. Despite being eaten by both cats and people, the wild rabbit population soared to 130,000 on the tiny island within 100 years. Rabbits ate the grass, which allowed erosion to damage the island, and subsequent storms and tremors destroyed erosion-damaged penguin breeding grounds.

look out for dangers

Stoats, a species of weasel, were brought in to control the rabbits on Macquarie Island and in New Zealand soon after the feral population of rabbits became established. Soon the stoat population was helping itself to seabirds and their eggs. Photograph by Flickr user Markus Hoppe.

Possums

As possums were introduced to New Zealand to raise for fur, they made their way to Macquarie Island as well. The cats weren't all that interested in possums, so they bred to the point of becoming pests along with the other introduced species. Photograph by Flickr user Peter Firminger.

As the populations of non-native species grew on Macquarie Island, a time bomb was ticking. When the balance of predators and food supplies reaches a certain point, predators will turn to different species to eat. The Macquarie parakeet flourished on the island until around 1880, when the rabbit supply allowed the number of feral cats to explode, and the cats branched out to eat parakeets. The last Macquarie parakeet was sighted in 1891, and the species became extinct. Of course, the feral cats, while still eating rabbits, went after other native birds. Shown is the red-crowned parakeet of New Zealand, which is similar in appearance to the Macquarie parakeet. Photograph by Thomas Mattern.

Skeleton of sea-elephant & Harold Hamilton

When Macquarie Island began to be used as a science station in the 20th century, seal hunting met its end. Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson spearheaded the drive to declare the island a nature reserve, and it was his efforts that forced the end of sealing. The last load of oil was taken off the island in 1919. In 1933, Macquarie Island became an official wildlife preserve.

Sea elephants and royal penguins, Macquarie Island, c. 1950s

Meanwhile, as the seal and penguin population slowly began to recover, the island was still overrun with rabbits. Australian scientists hatched a plan to control rabbits (which were out of control in all of Australia) by introducing the virus Myxoma which causes Myxomatosis, a disease fatal to rabbits. First, rabbit fleas were brought to the island in 1968 (yet another invasive species) as a future carrier of the virus. The environment being what it was, the establishment of fleas wasn't as successful as had been hoped. The virus itself was introduced on the island in 1978. The rabbit population plunged from 130,000 to around 10,000, which is the good news. The bad news is that the remaining rabbits were the ones that were immune to the disease.

With most of the rabbits gone, the estimated 500 feral cats on Macquarie Island knew what to do. They ate the native seabirds -up to 60,000 of them every year. The government of Australia decided the only thing to do at that point was to eliminate the feral cats. Cat hunting was encouraged beginning in 1985. The Tasmanian government intensified the program in 1997, using traps and dogs to catch the cats. The last feral cat was caught in 2000. No more cats on Macquarie Island.

Problem solved? Oh no! With the cats gone, those 10,000 rabbits who were immune to the Myxoma virus began to multiply again. The Tasmanian government came to the conclusion that all non-native species had to be eradicated at the same time. That would be the only way to restore the nature preserve to its intended use for the original sea animals. The current eradication program began in 2010. But even that has its problems. The poison bait used to eliminate invasive mammals is working its way through the ecosystem. Just last year, we learned of the death of thousands of seabirds that ate the carcasses of the poisoned mammals. Albatross photograph by Wikipedia user Hullwarren.

Will Macquarie Island ever return to its 18th-century ecological state? Let's hope. Photograph by Wikipedia user Hullwarren.

See also: Messing with Mother Nature: 5 Cautionary Tales

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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