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Dieter Braun

The Parasite and the Parrot: A Love Story

Original image
Dieter Braun

Two bizarre New Zealand species are on the brink of extinction. Can they save each other?

When it comes to parasites, few are as diabolically elegant as the Hades flower. The rootless, leafless plant lurks beneath the thick undergrowth of New Zealand forests, attaching itself to trees and pilfering nutrients. As it drains its host, the Hades leaves beautiful scars—fluted burls that remain in the wood. It’s these so-called flowers that give the plant its nickname, the wood rose.

Collectors used to bag the once ubiquitous bark roses, varnishing them for home decoration. But environmental threats such as deforestation and invasive species have landed the Hades flower on the endangered-species list. By the end of the last decade, the plant’s span had shrunk to four percent of its original range. Scientists guessed that just a few thousand plants remained, but they couldn’t be sure. And while the flowers do sprout shoots and bloom for two months a year, possums and pigs make such quick snacks of the buds that the underground Hades plant is impossible to track.

Unsure of how many Hades flowers are left, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has been desperate to protect the species. As part of a recovery plan in the 1990s, it considered transplanting populations of the plant but couldn’t find an area with enough bats or other creatures to pollinate it. Of course, protecting the Hades flower isn’t the only conservation issue on the island.

New Zealand is a hotbed of endangered species. Because the archipelago’s flora and fauna were isolated for so much of human history, its native species were ill equipped to protect themselves when settlers arrived. In the last few years, conservationists have been stumped about how to save the Hades flower. Then, in a lucky coincidence, they hit upon a possible solution. What if they recruited another endangered species—the hapless kakapo bird—to help?

The kakapo is unquestionably cute—the bird looks like a parakeet crossed with an owl crossed with a Muppet—but it’s impossible to underscore how useless it is. Also, it has some of the world’s worst evolutionary luck. Kakapos can’t fly, so they build their nests on the ground. Instead of hiding their homes, they settle down in big open spaces. They’re nocturnal, feeling their way through forests with the whiskerlike feathers on their faces. Perhaps most self-defeating, kakapos emit a strong musky scent that’s impossible to ignore. And it’s this combination—their preference for slow nighttime strolls combined with the body odor of dinner—that made the bird easy pickings for humans, dogs, cats, and every other predator. It was once one of the country’s most prevalent birds; today there are only 124 kakapos left.

For scientists who study endangered species, one of the major challenges is figuring out how historical animal populations behaved in long-gone ecosystems. How did they interact with one another? Who ate what? Which species were enemies and which were friends? It’s akin to watching a movie with the major plot points edited out. That’s where fossilized feces can come in handy. Rock-hard mineralized animal droppings—known as coprolite—function as thousand-year-old clues to animal diet, behavior, and relationships and are often key to reconstructing these ecological “deleted scenes.”

In 2010, New Zealand paleoecologist Jamie Wood and a team of researchers trekked to Honeycomb Hill Caves in the northwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island to collect coprolite as part of a project to reconstruct the diets of extinct birds. Among the bits of organic matter, Wood and his fellow researchers noticed something distinctive: round grains of pollen, each full of large holes with raised borders, almost like the suckers on an octopus’s tentacles. The moment Wood peered at them under the microscope, he knew he was looking at a Hades flower.

“I knew the plant didn’t occur on the South Island anymore,” he says. “But it wasn’t until we started to research the ecology that we worked out the full significance of the finding.” Radiocarbon dating revealed that the coprolite was 900 years old. Its source? A kakapo.

Scientists hadn’t known that the parrot and the plant were acquainted. But as he learned about the Hades flower’s life cycle and the problems it faced, Wood realized that the pollen in the coprolite hinted at an untold story. Before they were each driven out of their shared territory by human settlement and encroaching predators, kakapos fed on the Hades flower and carried its pollen on their whiskery feathers, helping the plant reproduce.

If the two species were reunited, would the parrots resume their ancient role and help the plants pollinate? The chance to find out came when the Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery relocated eight kakapos to one of the last remaining refuges of the Hades flower, Little Barrier Island off the coast of North Island. In the early morning hours one day in April 2012, wranglers captured the birds by hand and placed them in pet carriers. The crates were packed with damp towels, along with apples and carrots for the kakapos to snack on. When the birds arrived a day later, it marked the first time in years that the two strange species shared a home.

Setting the kakapos loose on the island, outside of heavy human handling, is an important step in the parrot’s repopulation process. “We need to see if they can survive and flourish without outside help,” conservation minister Kate Wilkinson told a New Zealand newspaper. “This initiative could play a major role in securing the long-term survival of the species.”

As for the bird’s role in helping the Hades flower spread, it’s still too early to tell whether the endangered species matchmaking will work. So far, there’s little evidence that the kakapos have taken notice of the flowers. But scientists are optimistic, holding out hope that somewhere in the dark forest—as these strange little birds feel their way toward the pale flowers barely poking out of the ground—old ties still bind.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.

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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]