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Should Scientists Battle Poachers by Keeping Animal Locations Secret?

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You can find just about anything through a quick internet search—and it turns out that’s true even for poachers. Wild animal hunters are now using online scientific literature to locate rare and new species. That, two scientists warn in a recent essay, could create serious problems.

Easily accessible online data can help rare and endangered species, providing scientific evidence to support the need for measures to protect them. Accessibility also fosters better replication of scientific studies and greater collaboration among researchers. But "Do not publish," a recent essay in Science, argues that data also helps those with more nefarious intentions.

Essay co-author David Lindenmayer, a researcher at the Australian National University, spells out three potential problems with unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species: surges in poaching; disruption of relationships between researchers and owners of land where studied species are found; and increased habitat disturbance and destruction.

Scientists have documented poaching within months of publishing taxonomic descriptions of new species. Lindenmayer tells Mental Floss that when authorities caught poachers shipping one of Australia’s rarest parrots out of the country in an industrial cooler, the container included copies of scientific papers citing the bird’s location. He also reports targeting of more than 20 newly described reptiles in this way, and an IUCN Red List assessment identified at least 355 reptile species intentionally targeted by collectors. Heavy hunting of an Indonesian turtle following its description in the scientific literature left the animal nearly extinct in the wild.

In fact, Lindenmayer says, if you search for some of these species online, the results will include some sites that claim to sell them.

So-called Lazarus species—those that reappear after having been thought extinct—require especially careful consideration regarding publicity. Scientists found evidence of a population of Sumatran rhinos, thought extinct for some 25 years, in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo in 2013. A later sighting received extensive publicity. Because poaching for rhino horn remains so popular, scientists argued in Biological Conservation that the Kalimantan rhinos survived precisely because few knew about them. The paper states that when publicity "increases the risk significantly relatively to benefits," secrecy should be favored.

Lindenmayer and co-author Ben Scheele also cite personal experience of strained relationships with landowners. The researchers discovered new populations of endangered, pink-tailed worm-lizards. Soon after they uploaded location information to open-access government wildlife atlases, a requirement of research permits, landowners began to complain about trespassers seeking the rare creatures. Those would-be collectors jeopardized relationships that took years to establish.

The trespassers also damaged important worm-lizard habitat. Habitat damage can happen even when people aren't trying to collect animals or plants but simply trying to see or photograph them. A paper in Animal Conservation reports that people frequently displace rocks while searching for snakes and lizards in southeastern Australia. The endangered broad-headed snake and its prey, velvet geckos, shelter in narrow crevices beneath sun-warmed rocks, but researchers rarely found either animal under rocks that people had displaced. The paper concluded that even minor displacement of overlying rocks modifies critical attributes of the crevices—and thus reduces habitat quality for the endangered species.

One potential downside of not sharing data could occur during environmental assessments for new development, Lindenmayer says. Species can't be protected if no one knows they're there.

Fortunately, there are ways to share data with those who need it without making it completely public. Consider how Charlotte Reemts, a research and monitoring ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, approached the publication of her research on the small, endangered star cactus, which is found in only a few South Texas counties. "When I wrote up my research, I purposefully left the location very vague," she tells Mental Floss. "I didn’t put in any maps or give the landowner’s name in the acknowledgements."

Databases such as those kept by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have mechanisms in place to not make locations public in certain situations, Reemts says.

"There is a difference between having scientific information that is not shared publicly, and keeping it from everyone," Joe Fargione, The Nature Conservancy’s science director for North America, tells Mental Floss. "Having a system to share data with qualified researchers allows the scientific community to have the benefit of that new knowledge, without exposing a species to additional risk from poachers."

It's not an unprecedented approach. "Other disciplines have tackled this problem well," Lindenmayer says, noting that archaeologists and paleontologists hold back data to protect important sites and fossil deposits from looters.

In Fargione’s opinion, the trick is to "treat data as sensitive as opposed to secret." He stresses, "Overharvesting of a species can significantly increase risk of extinction, and extinction is forever. So it makes sense not to do anything that would increase that irreversible risk."

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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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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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