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11 Adorable (And Essential) Animal Development Milestones

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As breeding programs blossom at various zoos across the world, many institutions are tasked with more than just breeding and birthing little ones. They’re also expected to make sure their tiniest new residents are developing appropriately and at the right rate. Parenthood—it’s never easy!

When should a baby panda first learn to walk? How early is too early for otters to start swimming? When can infant tigers try out their skills in the water? Zoos know. Here are the milestones zoo babies must hit before crowds get a peek.

1. Tigers Get Tested on Their Swimming

While learning how to swim might not be the most important thing a wild tiger can learn (we’re betting that running, hunting, and patrolling probably come first), it’s a little different for tigers that live in zoos. Many tiger habitats include deep pond portions in their exhibits for maximum tiger fun time (as well as visitor safety). The Smithsonian’s National Zoo took their baby twin tigers, Bandar and Sukacita, for a swim last month, testing to make sure the cubs, born in August, could hold their own and start hanging out safely in the zoo’s tiger exhibit. The pair were expected to keep their heads above water, swim to the shallow end of the exhibit’s moat, and jump on to dry land. While they didn’t seem too excited when they first hit the water, they both passed with flying colors! Now the dynamic duo can hang out in the exhibit with their mom, Damai.

2. Panda Learning to Walk

The National Zoo’s tiger twins aren’t the only little ones making big strides lately—the infant Giant Panda cub is currently learning how to walk! The three-month old (which was just named Bao Bao) weighs in at a very healthy 10 pounds, which may have made maneuvering a bit rolly-polly, at least for now. Most pandas start walking between 2.5 and 3 months, so the zoo’s newest black and white is right on track.

3. Otter Being Taught to Swim

Though it seems a bit counterintuitive, baby river otters are not born knowing how to swim—they have to be taught. The Oregon Zoo’s baby otter Molalla learned how to paddle back in April, thanks to the patient instruction of his mom, Tilly. Mo’s first swim lesson might look a bit, well, intense, what with Tilly grabbing him in her mouth and dunking him right under the water, but it’s essential for his learning curve. Also—not to worry, Mo can float.

4. Giraffe Learning How to Stand Up

Plenty of wild animals learn to stand up soon after birth, but that doesn’t mean that the first time it happens it’s not still entirely eye-opening. Over at Connecticut’s LEO Zoological Conservation Center, the facility welcomed its first live Rothschild giraffe birth back in March. Intent on standing up, she struggles for a bit, faithfully encouraged by her mother, and soon the rest of the curious herd. It may take a few attempts—hey, you try standing up in sawdust—but she soon succeeds, and is rewarded with kisses and a solid cleaning from her mom.

5. Pygmy Hippo Learning How to Swim

Sure, watching baby animals learn how to do just about anything is pretty cute, but there’s something extremely special about seeing the Taronga Park Zoo’s baby pygmy hippopotamus Monifa taking her first swim with a zookeeper. She’s so small! So willing! So happy! The little hippo is a real natural, and that’s a good thing—hippos spend most of their lives in the water.

6. Elephant Learning What a Trunk Is

Just because something is an actual part of your body doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take getting used to—and that’s the case with this baby elephant at the Whipsnade Zoo. The newborn is still a bit unsteady on his feet and, combined with the wonder that is a wrinkly, slinky trunk, it’s amazing that he hasn’t just fallen over already. Don’t worry, though, he’ll soon master the use of his trunk, as it’s fit for a large range of tasks—from lifting to digging to taking in water.

7. Meerkats Emerging from Burrow

Meerkat babies are born underground in one of their close-knit family’s many burrows, so it’s a big deal when they first emerge. It’s not only a treat for zoo patrons, but for the entire meerkat clan, all of whom make it their business to make sure that the little ones are OK. Meerkat pups will emerge from the burrow when they're around three weeks old, but the protection doesn’t stop after their first entrance to the aboveground world—they’ll be under the watchful eyes of babysitters for at least another week.

8. Andean Bear Takes First Steps

Much like their panda cousins, Andean Bears participate in a lot of chubby stumbling before mastering walking. At the Phoenix Zoo, their new baby boy took his first steps back in April, partially thanks to his mother, Rio, who began letting her little one explore on his own when he was just a bit over three months old. Staying limber is a good thing for Andean Bears, who are also skilled climbers (that will come later for Rio’s cub).

9. Rhino Learning How to Run

Back in April of 2011, the Dublin Zoo let its newest little one take his first run after five days of hanging out in the nursery with his mom. He’s a quick little guy, but that doesn’t mean that his mother doesn’t feel the need to stay pretty close by, especially because his eyesight isn’t fully developed just yet. He’s certainly off to a solid start—which is good, because most rhinos can gallop at speeds up to 30 miles per hour once they’re full grown.

10. Zebra Exploring Habitats

Another young buck took his first trip into his habitat back in September of 2009 at the Cincinnati Zoo, when a baby Grevy’s zebra cut loose at his home exhibit. While still a bit unsteady on those skinny legs, his exploration efforts are essential to his growth, both mental and physical. The zebras are big grazers when it comes to eating, so a curious spirit (and a quick gait!) are very good things.

11. Penguins Learning How to Swim

Penguins might seem naturally adept at swimming, flipping, sliding, and diving, but even those chicks need a little in-water training before mastering their instincts. Earlier this year, the Dublin Zoo took one of its adorable penguin chicks, Joey, for his first swim. The hand-reared chick took to the wet stuff incredibly well, quickly exhibiting some observed behaviors he’s seen the big guys play at—like feather-cleaning and head-dunking.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock

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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