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7 Tricks Zoos Use to get Endangered Animals to Mate

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By Lauren Hansen

Just like humans, animals sometimes need a little romantic help in the "bedroom." For endangered, captive animals, the pressure to perform is even greater as mating is the only way to save species from extinction. So what's a sexually apprehensive creature to do? Leave it to industrious zoo keepers to come up with some wildly romantic gestures—from the sweet sounds of a classical pianist to the alluring scent of fragrant herbs—to help make the magic happen. In honor of Valentine's Day, here are seven potentially inspiring stories (ahem), of animals trying to get it on.

1. French pianist plays live

A pair of Galapagos tortoises at the London Zoo were treated to the ethereal tunes of French pianist Richard Clayderman on Feb. 7. The musician serenaded them with songs from his latest album Romantique, as well as classics like his stirring "Ballade pour Adeline" and a rousing rendition of "Chariots of Fire." While the intimate event was mostly an admitted plug for his new work, the endangered animals do desperately need to get it on and the zoo was willing to try anything. Unfortunately, the romantic music was, by all accounts, lost on the reptiles, who only appeared interested when offered carrots by a keeper.

2. Creating a private love nest

The pressure was on earlier this month for giant pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian when the female, Tian Tian, had but a 36-hour window of optimal fertility. To encourage the process, keepers at the Edinburgh Zoo opened a "love tunnel" between their separate enclosures and also turned off the Panda Cam to ensure they had their privacy. While the pair showed encouraging signs of intimacy, including a spirited wrestling match, they have yet to mate. Officials say they would like for the UK's only pandas to do it naturally, but if necessary, they can use an extended bamboo pole to lift up Tian Tian's tail. Talk about a mood killer.

3. A cuddle surrogate

Cheetahs, being such stunningly fast animals, are fiercely independent, which doesn't help them in the metaphorical sack. Adding to the pressure, female cheetahs don't go into heat, but rather have to be brought into estrus by a male cheetah. Those living in zoos and wildlife parks are often particularly skittish and ill-suited for mating because they are likely to have been abandoned by their mothers or just fail to relate well to other cheetahs. How do zoos warm the loins of the frigid kitties? With dogs, naturally. Several zoos around the country have begun using "companion dogs" to serve as playmates for young cheetahs to provide the cats with socializing guidance. The cats and dogs are introduced at three months old and grow up together, the dog being the dominant figure in the relationship. The hope is that over time the cheetahs will relax around their brethren and, one day, welcome male cheetahs with open paws.

4. Speed dating

If you feel limited by your current dating pool, why not spread your wings and look elsewhere? That's exactly the mindset of those in charge of the Ecuadorian Amazon parrots at the UK's Chester Zoo. To encourage the rare bird species to mate, the zoo sends its lot of birds out to wildlife parks and zoos throughout Europe to meet potential mates. Once the potential suitors are located, the parrots are given time to get to know and evaluate each other, the way humans do in speed dating. If a pair is compatible, they are sent off to live together at a zoo where they are more likely to breed successfully. Body language is key to identifying a compatible pair. If the birds are sitting on opposite ends of the cage, they are not "clicking." If they are preening each other or even squabble like an old married couple, they're likely a good fit. But what, you might ask, of the Lady Edith Crawleys of the group — the birds left standing at the altar without a mate? Fear not, just because the parrots don't find compatible birds in one location doesn't mean their breeding partner isn't out there somewhere. The parrots continue to be passed along in the hopes of finding their one-true feathered friend.

5. 'Sexercise' and 'panda porn'

The people at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center in Southwest China are panda whisperers when it comes to mating tactics. As the country's wild panda population — now just under 1,600 — continues to dwindle, it has become more and more imperative that the animals mate. And so, the center's maternity ward has become a veritable petri dish of experimental romantic gestures. Some pandas partake in "sexercising," an activity in which the giant animal is tempted by an apple dangling on a pole. The hanging treat forces the panda up onto its hind legs and, as the apple bobs up and down, the panda exercises its pelvic floor muscles and reportedly improves its stamina. Meanwhile, for the timid pandas that are afraid to engage suitors, zoo keepers have two experienced pandas mate in front of the shy creature to encourage it to do the same. Others will be subject to "panda porn," to teach captive pandas how to do what they would normally have learned in the wild.

6. The sweet sounds of Marvin Gaye

After witnessing a two-decade drought of successful hatchlings, the keepers of the Chilean flamingos at the UK's Drusillas Park decided to give the long-legged pink birds a little tender encouragement. To conjure up that loving feeling, the staff played a mix of songs that have been successful in the human baby-making department, including tunes from Barry White and Marvin Gaye, along with a selection of love songs that might be particularly arousing for the birds themselves, including Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo" and Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." Keepers combined these love classics with recordings of the flamingos' bird calls and found subtle improvements. "They appear to be spending more time at the nest sites and taking a greater interest in each other." Proof, perhaps, that Marvin's sexual healing crosses species.  

7. An alluring fragrance

Prince is a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to romance. The 25-year-old two-toed sloth that lives at the London Zoo has been introduced to a few mates but none have piqued the little guy's interest. To be fair, a lass named Sheila turned out to be a male, but sloths are particularly secretive and notoriously difficult to pair for mating. Since playful Marilyn, who is "most definitely a lady," was introduced into Prince's habitat, the keepers have been cautiously optimistic. To encourage a clandestine meeting of the potential mates, staff members leave trails of fragrant herbs for Prince to seek out in his rainforest-style enclosure and, perhaps one day, the search will lead him into Marilyn's arms.

Sources: BBCThe Belfast TelegraphBird ChannelThe Daily Mail (2), The FriskyThe Huffington Post (2)

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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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.”

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