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8 Prehistoric Saber-Toothed Animals

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The first Ice Age movie hit theaters in 2002and with it came the cinematic debut of “Scrat," an accident-prone saber-toothed squirrel with an insatiable lust for acorns (as of this writing, the manic critter’s Facebook page has netted more than 12,000 “likes”). Although Scrat is a fictitious animal, these distinctive canines were donned by a vast array of prehistoric creatures from cats and marsupials to deer and even salmon. Here are eight of the most unusual.

1. Gorgonops: A Whiskered Predator

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Named for the gorgon of Greek mythology, Gorgonops stalked the plains of South Africa some 250 million years ago—long before the first dinosaur came along.

Intriguingly, however, this killer and its relatives (“gorgonopsians”) were much more closely-akin to us, even sporting whiskers and (according to some) scale-less skin. In recent years, gorgonopsians have gained publicity as frequent antagonists on the time-traveling BBC series Primeval.

2. Machaeroides: The First Saber-Toothed Mammal

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As far as true mammals are concerned, Machaeroides is the earliest known. Stout and powerfully built, this terrier-sized carnivore lived approximately 40 million years ago in modern-day Wyoming.

3. Uintatherium: A Bizarre Herbivore

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Saber teeth proved to be remarkably versatile throughout the course of evolution. Hence, just as they’d be used to disembowel hapless victims by an assortment of predatory felines, these mysterious mammals likely employed them for gathering aquatic plants and territorial disputes. Another distinctive feature is the quartet of knobs (scientifically dubbed “ossicones”) atop their prehistoric noggins.

For a stop-motion and massively-oversized Uintatherium (in reality, they were roughly the size of a modern white rhino), check out this 1992 Nissin Cup-O-Noodle Ad:

4. Longistromeryx: A Saber-Toothed Deer

Four separate species of this Nebraskan genus are known to science. The function of their odd canines remains something of a mystery, but the official website of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park highlights some of the bizarre company it kept 12 million years ago.

5. Oncorhynchus rastrosus: A Salmon With A Nasty Bite

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Native to the rivers and streams of Ice Age Oregon and California, this saber-toothed salmon reached more than six feet in length—an absolutely massive size by salmon standards. According to paleo-ichthyologists (prehistoric fish experts), its closest living relative is the sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka). 

6. Smilodon: The Legendary Saber-Toothed Cat

Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History

In actuality, there were more than a dozen species of “saber-toothed cat" (none of which, by the way, was a tiger). But Smilodon is by far the best-known: More than 100 specimens have been unearthed at the La Brea Tar Pits alone. But how did the animal whose Latin name literally means “knife tooth” use its dreaded sabers? No consensus exists, but there’s certainly no shortage of ideas. These include relying on powerful forelimbs to subdue prey before severing its windpipe and throwing back their heads and repeatedly jabbing their target. A particularly speculative hypothesis holds that they may have even been “blood-sucking” tools.

7. Thylacosmilus: A Prehistoric ‘Copy Cat’

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Convergent Evolution” is a term used to describe “the independent emergence of similar traits and body outlines in unrelated organisms." Often, the life forms in question are separated by thousands of miles, as in the case of the aforementioned Smilodon and Thylacosmilus—a marsupial-like carnivore from present-day South America.

8. Gomphotaria: A Four-Tusked Walrus

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Denver Museum of Nature and Science paleontologist Kirk Johnson once correctly observed that “walruses are saber-toothed seals.” Particularly well-endowed was Gomphotaria, which lived off the North American western seaboard and boasted two sets of saber-teeth. These were rooted in the marine mammal’s upper and lower jaws. A rather technical account on these fascinating beasts can be seen here.

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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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May 23, 2017
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