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Operation Migration

Operation Migration: Saving the Whooping Crane 

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Operation Migration

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). We've invited him to share some of his stories on mental_floss this week. To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

The whooping crane is an endangered bird native to North America. Before Europeans settled in the New World, there were an estimated 10,000 of them. By the late 1800s, that number fell to about 1500. In 1941, there were 23—two in captivity and just under two dozen in the wild.

Joe Duff wanted to fix that. To do so, he and his colleagues decided to dress up kind of like the whooping cranes they wanted to save.

Duff is the co-founder and CEO of a not-for-profit organization called Operation Migration. The whooping crane population is at risk mostly due to habitat loss—the areas they have been migrating to and from, for generations, have slowly been eroded away as people have moved in. Each subsequent generation of cranes learns the migratory path by following their parents and, unfortunately, the parents were going into a long-destroyed habitat; many did not survive the season. Without parents to guide them, the younger cranes were lost, and they, too, perished.

To combat this, Operation Migration uses a development from the 1980s and 1990s. A Canadian ultralight aircraft enthusiast named Bill Lishman—who would later become Duff’s co-founder—theorized that certain waterfowl could be trained to follow such a plane to a different migratory destination. In 1993, Lishman successfully led a group sixteen of Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. Thirteen of the sixteen returned to Ontario the next year—without needing a human guide.

Lishman’s innovation centered on the fact that waterfowl, soon after their birth, imprint upon the first creature they see. Typically, this is their birth mother, but in a controlled environment, it could be basically any animal—including a person, if conditions are right. Duff, in an interview with NPR’s Talk of the Nation, explained: “Whooping cranes are hatched in the nest, in a marsh on the ground, basically, and they leave the nest almost immediately and follow their parents out to forage for food. And if they don’t follow their parents, they’re lost. So that natural instinct to imprint is there, and we just substitute parent for pilot and make sure they imprint on us.” The pilots wear the above-seen costumes so that the whooping cranes, when reintroduced to the wild, are not familiar with humans. Duff does not want them to learn that other people they come across are going to coddle and care for them because, simply, they won’t.

Once the cranes are able—assuming they’ve learned to follow the pilot—Operation Migration continues their conditioning, training them to follow the ultralight aircraft, as seen below.

According to an interview Duff did with VetStreet.com, there are now roughly 500 whooping cranes in the wild—a roughly 20-fold increase in just a few generations, although there is a long way to go. And there are unexpected problems along the way. As reported by the Sierra Club, toward the end of 2011 and into 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded Operation Migration’s aircraft due to an unclear rule requiring the organization to obtain a special waiver before they took flight again. They are working with the FAA on a permanent solution to allow the flights to go off without further problems.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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