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Dave Thomas, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

12 of the World's Most Unusual Zoos

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Dave Thomas, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

1. Caves of Sea Lions

Oregon's Sea Lion Caves are the only known mainland rookery and wintering home of the Stellar Sea Lion. The system of sea-level caves also provide sanctuary for the California Sea Lion and serve as a resting place for a variety of birds, from Tufted Puffins to Bald Eagles. There's even a whale watching deck from which visitors can see Gray Whales and migrating orcas.

The caves were discovered by Captain William Cox in 1880, but have only been open to the public since 1932, as the cliffs and lack of roads made it difficult to access the caves by land. Today, visitors can access the caves via their gift shop off of U.S. 101.

2. The High-Altitude Zoo

india_sikkim_day9_61, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The only specialized zoo in India and the largest high-altitude zoo in India, Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (a.k.a. Darjeeling Zoo), specializes in breeding animals for alpine conditions, including Snow Leopards, Tibetan Wolves, Red Pandas, and Himalayan Newts. The zoo is also home to Blue Sheep, Blood Pheasants and Bhutan Grey Peacock Pheasants, Satyr Tragopans, and Himalayan Monals.

The zoo was established in 1958 as the Himalayan Zoological Park. It was renamed in 1975 when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dedicated the zoo to the memory of Padmaja Naidu, the former governor of West Bengal.

3. The Biblical Zoo

Marice T, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem, also known as Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, highlights a collection of animals featured in the Hebrew Bible. The narrow focus has been difficult for the zoo to maintain, since many of the Bible's animals are now extinct in Israel. The terms used in the Bible to name animals are also somewhat ambiguous, leading to some uncertainty over which animals are actually discussed. The zoo now includes a variety of endangered species in addition to the biblical animals, and it has become known for its breeding programs, which have enabled it to reintroduce at least 11 species to Israel's nature reserves.

Since its inception in 1940, the zoo has moved several times, but today it resides in the Malha valley. The two-level park includes trees and shrubs mentioned in the Bible, an artificial wall called Moses' Rock, and a "two-story, boat-shaped wooden visitor's center meant to resemble Noah's Ark."

4. Old MacDonald's Farm

Rain0975, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1966, a public park and petting zoo called Old MacDonald's Farm opened in Hampton, Virginia. Designed like a working farm, the park showcases farm animals and fowl as well as Virginia-native wild animals. Now known as Bluebird Gap Farm, the park intends to expose kids to animals in a farm setting, to which they would otherwise have very little exposure.

In addition to the animals, the park showcases both modern and antique farm equipment, the original Hampton train station, a family cemetery, a demonstration garden, and an Azalea Trail featuring rare azaleas.

5. The Butterfly Zoo

Dawn Ashley, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The U.S. is home to at least 35 butterfly gardens, homes, and exhibits, but the oldest is Florida's Butterfly World, which opened in 1988. (Butterfly World also holds the distinction of being the world's largest butterfly park.) Butterfly World serves as a public attraction, research facility, and butterfly farm.

In addition to approximately 5,000 live butterflies, the park also houses the U.S.'s largest free flight hummingbird aviary, an enclosure in which visitors can feed Lorikeets, tropical birds, botanical gardens, a Bug Zoo with live bugs, and an Insectarium of mounted bugs and butterflies.

6. The Sanctuary for Rescued Animals

New Jersey is home to Popcorn Park Zoo, a sanctuary for abandoned, injured, ill, exploited, abused and elderly animals. The small zoo—housing just 200 animals on 7 acres—has been nurturing rescued animals since 1977. The animals range from foxes, geese, and deer to lions, tigers and bears (oh my!). They also have rescued dogs and cats that are available for adoption.

When I was a child visiting the park with my grandparents, my favorite animal was an elephant with an injured trunk, who was followed around the park by a little troop of ducklings. The elephant would use its trunk to pet and herd the ducklings.

7. The Zoo in a Rainforest

Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo, Hawai'i, is the only U.S. zoo located in a rainforest. At just 12 acres, Pana'ewa is a small zoo, but it boasts a popular white Bengal Tiger named Namaste, who was given to the zoo by the Las Vegas magician Dirk Arthur.

The free zoo is home to more than 80 different animal species, a petting zoo, and a butterfly house.

8. The Koala Sanctuary

Adam Foster, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Australia, naturally, is home to the world's oldest and largest koala sanctuary, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. In addition to the koalas, the sanctuary is also home to other Australian animals, including kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, wombats, echidnas, parrots and cockatoos, reptiles, and a platypus.

Visitors have the rare privilege of being able to hold koalas for a fee. They can also feed and pet free-roaming kangaroos and feed nectar to lorikeets.

9. The Home for Birds of Prey

Richard Wise, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The International Centre for Birds of Prey is located in Gloucestershire, England, and houses some 60 species of owls and other birds of prey. At any given time, the Centre has about 20 to 40 trained birds residing in its Hawk Walk, an assortment of birds that rotates throughout the year to give the birds a break from the spotlight. The trained birds are used in flying demonstrations at the ICBP.

The Centre was originally established in 1967 as the Falconry Centre by the Glasier family, aiming to educate people about birds of prey and teach falconry. (Phillip Glasier was the leading expert on hawking and falconry in the UK; his daughter, Jemima Parry-Jones, is the current director of the ICBP.)

10. The Amusement Park Resort Zoo

Jeremy Thompson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Long before Disney built Animal Kingdom in Florida, England had an amusement park that offered a zoo, rides, and a resort all in one. Flamingo Land, which opened in 1959, is named for its popular colony of pink flamingos, some of the first animals housed at the park, but today the zoo is home to more than 120 species of animals.

The animals are only one facet of this amusement park and resort, which includes more than 50 rides and attractions, three shows, a 9-hole golf course, a fly fishing stream, a 1000-seat entertainment venue, a swimming pool, and log cabins. Flamingo Land was the subject of a "docusoap," Theme Park, on ITV and has also been featured in Zoo Vet at Large on ITV1.

11. The World's Most Northern Zoo

Norway's Polar Zoo is the world's most northern zoo and the zoo with the biggest area per animal ratio. Spread over 114 acres, the zoo focuses on creating a "Scandinavian wilderness experience," showcasing animals in their natural habitats. The cold-weather animals include wolves and bears as well as red deer, reindeer, moose, and musk ox.

The Polar Zoo offers some unique experiences, including a wolf camp and fox camp in which you can get up close and personal with socialized wolves and foxes, respectively. You can also go "photoguiding," during which a keeper will take you inside enclosures to take "the perfect picture," or join the wolves for a "howl night," in which you not only meet the wolves inside their enclosure but also howl with them.

12. The Harem's Zoo

Egypt's Giza Zoo, an 80 acre zoological garden encompassing Giza's largest park, first opened in 1891 on land that was once part of the harem gardens. The original collection of animals was taken from the private menagerie of Imsa'il Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt from 1863 to 1879. The harem building itself served as a natural history museum from 1890 through 1902.

Today, the zoo houses a wide variety of animals, but the architectural and botanical features are just as fascinating. The garden roads are paved with black stone flags from Trieste, and footpaths are done in mosaic designs. The zoo includes a suspension bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) that allows visitors to view the animals from above; it is thought to be the world's first elevated viewing area in a zoo. There are also five grottos and a Japanese building.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

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.”

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