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4 Animals That Change in Captivity

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Put a wild animal in a cage, and it’s bound to act differently. Zoologists and vets have many strategies to help an animal get settled and normalize its behavior in captivity. Psychological changes can be overcome with animal enrichment programs that keep creatures entertained and mentally stimulated—but some of the internal and physical changes in these four animals are more difficult to tackle.

1. Koalas

Image courtesy of jsteel's Flickr stream.

While some animals eagerly engage in free love (deep sea squid, bonobos, and penguins have all been found to have bisexual tendencies), koalas are a more conservative bunch. These eucalyptus-munching marsupials are strictly heterosexual—at least in the wild. Once in captivity, female koalas participate in lesbian orgies. According to scientists at the University of Queensland, who monitored 130 koalas using digital cameras, female koalas in captivity engage in homosexual acts three times as often as they participate in heterosexual activities. The orgies often include up to five females at a time. (They don’t count the males out, though: The females' heterosexual activities lasted twice as long as their homosexual encounters.)

Scientists remain uncertain about the cause of these encounters. Some believe that female koalas use the orgies as a method of attracting males, while others think it’s a hormonal behavior. Still others believe it serves to release stress.

2. Komodo Dragons

Image courtesy of vsellis' Flickr stream.

Don’t get bitten by a wild Komodo dragon: Their mouths contain 57 septic pathogens including e. coli and Staphylococcus which, according to some scientists, cause horrible infections in the creatures’ victims. (Lucky for the dragons, they’re immune to all the bacteria.) Once in captivity, however, Komodo dragons lose their filthy mouths thanks to cleaner diets and antibiotics which kill the pathogens.

Why give Komodos antibiotics when they’re immune to the bacteria? Once taken from the wild, the dragons are highly susceptible to infection and disease. This may be because the animals have a lower core temperature in captivity, but no one knows for certain.

3. Poison Dart Frogs

Image courtesy of e_monk's Flickr stream.

The bright color of a poison dart frog’s skin is a loud warning: Don’t touch me! The poison secreted by these paper-clip-sized amphibians is so deadly that indigenous tribes in South America coat their hunting darts with it. (According to National Geographic, the Golden poison dart frog has enough venom to take out 10 men.) But the frogs generally stop being poisonous once removed from the wild .

As with the Komodo dragon, this change comes down to diet. Poison dart frogs derive toxins from what they eat: Some get their poison from ants, others from beetles, a few from spiders. The toxins are collected in glands in the frogs’ skins and secreted through it, which is what makes them poisonous to the touch. It’s practically impossible for zookeepers and others who take care of the animals to obtain these toxic food sources.

Frogs taken from the wild can hold on to their poison for a long time, sometimes years. But eventually they lose their toxicity, and captive bred frogs will never become poisonous (unless, of course, they’re fed the specific insects that result in that species’ toxicity).

There is one exception to this no-toxin rule: Australia’s corroboree frog, the only species known to produce its own poison rather than deriving it through diet. These creatures maintain their poison no matter how many generations are raised in captivity—a very good thing because captive breeding and eventual release into the wild is the only hope of survival for the critically endangered frogs.

4. Japanese Fire Belly Newts

Image courtesy of Eric Michon's Flickr stream.

Like poison dart frogs, these newts are highly toxic in the wild; they secrete Tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin for which there is no antidote. But in captivity, the animals may lose their toxicity. The key word here is “may”: Some newts born in captivity actually hold on to their poison instead of losing it. While scientists are unclear about the reason for this occasional biological change, many speculate that the animal’s toxicity is formed through contact with an environmental bacteria that is sometimes, but not always, passed to the next generation.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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