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9 Things You Might Not Know About Baby Dinosaurs

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We may not be able to directly observe them (with the obvious exception of Baby Sinclair), but newborn dinosaurs have given paleontologists around the globe magnificent insight into how these amazing creatures grew, lived, and reproduced nevertheless. Here are some of the most striking discoveries.

1. Fetal Dinosaurs Flexed Before Hatching

Compelling evidence in the fossilized remains of embryonic Lufengosaurus (a species of long-necked Chinese herbivore) suggests that at least some unborn dinosaurs kicked and wriggled prior to breaking free of their shells, activities which stimulate bone growth in modern-day mammals and birds.

2. A Baby Dinosaur Was “Mummified” In Italy

According to some experts, a juvenile Scipionyx (which was later nicknamed “Ciro”) may have been less than three weeks old when it perished some 113 million years ago in what’s now southern Italy. Its remains are so spectacularly preserved that joints, ligaments, and even internal organs are visible (including the stomach, which shows that Ciro was rather fond of smaller reptiles and the occasional fish), making the little creature one of the most complete dinosaur specimens known to science.

3. Adolescent Triceratops Went Through Some Serious Shape-Shifting

A positively adorable baby Triceratops skull discovered in 2006 helped complete a study on the iconic dinosaur’s growth patterns which yielded some surprising results (you can see the various phases here) as paleontologist Jack Horner explains in this eye-opening TED talk (skip to the 13:05 mark):

4. Baby Dinosaurs Were Occasionally Gobbled Up By Large Mammals

When the opossum-sized Repenomamus robustus was first unearthed in 2000, the remains of an infant Psittacosaurus were found in its gut. For a dramatized recreation of its dino-guzzling antics, click here

5. … And Prehistoric Snakes

At over 11 feet in length, hefty serpents like Sanajeh indicus apparently had little difficulty invading the unguarded nests and eating the young of even the largest dinosaurs, as evidenced by a skeleton that was found coiled around a group of Titanosaur eggs back in 2010.

6. Some Had Bushy Tails

Known only from the fossilized carcass of a 28-inch hatchling, the species named Sciurumimus—or “squirrel mimic”— grew a layer of downy, feather-like structures on its tail at an early age, though it’s not likely that the pint-sized predator also went around collecting acorns.

7. Baby Dino Tracks Were Found In Colorado

The tennis-ball-sized footprints have been attributed to the dinosaur formerly known as Brontosaurus: Apatosaurus ajax, a massive herbivore which would have easily weighed in at over 20 tons when fully-grown. Curiously, these miniature tracks imply that their maker was running on its hind legs at the time, a feat its gargantuan parents most definitely couldn’t pull off.

8. “Duck Billed” Dinosaurs Grew Faster Than Their Carnivorous Counterparts

Hatchling hadrosaurs (aka “duck-bills”) faced a particularly jarring challenge. A lack of any obvious defense mechanisms such as horns or plated armor is an unenviable situation for any potential prey item, but a 2008 study found that the seemingly-helpless animals defended themselves by simply outgrowing their predators, sometimes reaching full size at three to five times the rate of local Tyrannosaurs.

9. Some Dinosaurs May Have Laid Their Eggs In Other Species’ Nests

Egg-laying can be a sneaky business. Rather than go through the effort of raising their own young, some modern birds such as the European Cuckoo simply deposit theirs in the nest of unsuspecting songbirds to trick the unwitting victims into feeding and nurturing the crafty avian’s young.

While it’s a speculative conclusion, Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History has turned to this Machiavellian strategy as a potential explanation for why a pair of Velociraptor-like hatchlings (or possibly embryos) were found in an Oviraptor’s nest (though Norell also offered some more conservative conclusions, such as that the mother simply made a snack of the two raptors).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]