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Barcroft Media/Landov

5 Animals Disguised as Other Animals

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Barcroft Media/Landov

Dogs that look like their owners is a phenomenon that has been the subject of a book, a photo exhibit, a recent scientific study, and, of course, a BuzzFeed post. But dogs that look like African lions? Well, that’s sort of new. As are ferrets that look like poodles.  


Earlier this month, a Tibetan Mastiff being touted as an African lion at a zoo in the People's Park of Luohe in China (above) gave its canine identity away when a pint-sized visitor and his mom approached the Not-Quite-King of the Jungle’s cage and heard it barking. Ruh-roh! 


Barcroft Media /Landov

The Tibetan Mastiff isn’t the only case of mistaken animal identity at the People’s Park. Following the outing of the dog-turned-lion, additional reports surfaced that the zoo has used dogs in place of wolves (not a huge stretch) and foxes in place of leopards (definitely a huge stretch). In response to the allegations of fraud, a spokesperson for the park—which is temporarily closed—noted, “We’re doing our best in tough economic times. If anyone is unhappy with our displays, we will give back their money.”


Wild animal fake-outs are nothing new in China. In 2010, a handful of dyed dogs—including a Chow/panda and Golden Retriever/tiger—were used to attract visitors to the opening of the Dahe Pet Civilization Park in Zhengzhou, Henan.


With all that facial fuzz, it’s hard to tell what a toy poodle’s mug actually looks like. But one thing it certainly doesn’t look like is a ferret. That small fact didn’t stop a pet seller in Argentina from pumping a few ferrets full of steroids and passing them off as designer dogs.


The joke was on the hungry horseflies of Weye, Germany, when horse farm owner Claudia Wide painted zebra stripes on her black stallion after reading a study from Sweden’s Lund University. The study’s researchers discovered that zebras in the wild don’t have to contend with pesky horsefly bites because of the way their stripes reflect light.

Other Animals in Disguise

The Rubber Snake

In 1984, a regular visitor to the Houston Zoo became concerned when he noticed a coral snake had not seemed to move in nine months. The reason? It was made of rubber. “We have had live snakes in the exhibit,” curator John Donaho explained to the visitor, “but they don't do well—they tend to die.” 

The Plastic Polar Bear
Polar bear-loving visitors to the St. Louis Zoo went home fairly disappointed in 2009 when the living, breathing Arctic creatures who had called the zoo home were replaced with illuminated, plastic versions. To be fair, the zoo wasn’t hoping visitors would be fooled; the decorative versions were a temporary placeholder following the passing of the zoo’s one polar bear, Hope, while the zoo was on a waiting list for a new one.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]