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© AMNH\D. Finnin

6 Animals Portrayed Incorrectly in Early Taxonomic Drawings

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© AMNH\D. Finnin

In the early days of exploration, scientists and species seekers had to rely on illustrations—often drawn from written descriptions or based on dead specimens—to bring their discoveries to life. Given their varied source material, “it’s remarkable how many illustrations were correct,” says Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstein Director of the Department of Library Services at the American Museum of Natural History and editor of Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library. But sometimes, an artist’s depiction of a creature was a little off, as you can see from the examples below. (A few of these illustrations are currently featured in an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History inspired by its namesake book.)

1. Octopus


© AMNH\D. Finnin

This cephalopod appeared in Conrad Gessner’s Historia Animalium, a five-volume series published between 1551 and 1558. “The thing that always freaks me out about the octopus is just how well it’s figured,” Baione says. For printing, an artist would have taken a sketch and transferred it onto a woodblock—a very difficult task. “The idea that somebody could carve away all the wood and just leave tiny wooden slivers to represent these delicate lines delineating the animal—just the idea of doing that sounds complicated,” Baione says. But one tiny thing about the octopus is off: Cephalopods have horizontal pupils, regardless of their orientation. This indicates that the artist probably sketched the likeness of the animal from a dead specimen.

2. Rhinoceros

© AMNH\D. Finnin

Gessner worked with a number of different artists to create images for his Animalium volumes, and in some cases, used pre-existing woodcuts, including this one created by Albrecht Dürer in 1515. Of course, Durer and Gessner probably never actually saw a rhinoceros. “A visual game of telephone is, to some degree, what the artists were dealing with in the 16th century,” Baione says. “Durer may have worked from other artists' renditions and some written or verbal information about what the rhino’s prominent features were. If you look at a real rhinoceros, especially if you see it move, its body does look like it has plates hanging on it. It’s not so remarkable to think that someone might’ve been given information that led to the creation of the image that was made into a woodblock.”

As time went by, the artistic renderings of rhinos in natural history books got more realistic: “More people [were] seeing it and saying, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have a horn up there,’” Baione says. “‘It doesn’t have a beard. Its legs aren’t really like that. Its tail doesn’t have so much hair on it. It really has two horns, not just one horn. The horn’s not scaly. The ears are smaller.’ So eventually, it was refined until it was a much more realistic illustration. And before long, specimens of rhinos—living and preserved—made their way to Europe.”

3. Walrus

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This sketch, also from Gessner’s Historia Animalium, is another good example of what happens when things get lost in translation. “We know that a walrus is a four-limbed creature,” Baione says. “So they show him with four limbs, but I guess because the description from someone who had seen one didn’t make it intact to the artist, these fins are figured in Gessner as separate from the four limbs, rather than part of the limbs.” The sketch of the walrus (which doesn’t appear in the book Natural Histories or the exhibition) is extraordinary for another reason: The walrus is an Arctic creature and, at that time, “there was not a lot of Arctic exploration going on,” Baione says. “A lot of people who saw arctic animals were on a one-way trip, if you know what I mean. It’s amazing that at that date, news of such a creature made its way all the way down to Switzerland, to Zurich, where Gessner worked.”

4. Puffer Fish

© AMNH\D. Finnin

These sketches, which appeared in Louis Renard’s 1719 book Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires were drawn by artists from specimens. The artists purposefully embellished the fish with vibrant colors, strange patterns, and human-like expressions. The puffer fish appears almost angry. “I really like the expression on the puffer fish,” Baione says. “Appreciating his unusual features takes a closer look – which is what this exhibit allows– the book illustrations are greatly enlarged, making it easier to see his subtle expression and coloring—he looks like he’s going to jump off the page and perhaps bite you!”

5. Mandrill

© AMNH\D. Finnin

This illustration, which appeared in Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber’s 19th century book Mammals Illustrated From Nature, With Descriptions, is fairly accurate—but still posed in a very human, non-monkey-like way. “We hoped the mandrill shows how anthropomorphized these images were,” Baione says. “Some of them are almost laughably anthropomorphized, so we opted not to include them. We thought the mandrill was handsome and colorful, with his sensitive, wise expression.” The primate may also have a case of man hands. “His hands should’ve been a little more like his feet in the illustration, but so it goes,” Baione says. “It looks like the mandrill impersonator forgot his mandrill gloves.”

6. Two-Toed Sloth

© AMNH\D. Finnin

This illustration comes from Albert Seba’s four volume Thesaurus, published in the 18th century. “Seba worked in Amsterdam and he’s most famous for his collecting,” Baione says. “He was an apothecary, so he was looking to obtain and identify natural substances—either the gallbladder of a lizard or the seed of some plant—and by experimenting with them, he was able to create salves and tinctures and ointments that might relieve symptoms of illnesses—or, just as likely, make them worse.”

Seba would head down to the docks and barter with sick, returning sailors, trading his cures for their unusual specimens, which probably included this two-toed sloth. Because Seba’s artists were drawing from preserved specimens and live animals, they could generally accurately depict anatomical features, but not behaviors—this sloth is shown moving through the trees upright, while in reality, sloths hang upside down.

This armchair naturalism had other drawbacks, too: “People off in the far corners of the world knew, by the 18th century, that these funny bearded European characters loved strange stuff,” Baione says. “If you could show them something that you knew they hadn’t seen before—because you created it—then they might pay a high price or be very happy and reward you in some way. In some cases, Seba collected and illustrated a lot of creatures that we know didn’t and couldn’t have existed.”

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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