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Christopher C. Austin

10 Awesome New Species Discovered in 2013

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Christopher C. Austin

Geckos and shrubs and sharks, oh my! 2013 was a big year for new species. Scientists found hundreds of them this year. Here are some of our favorites.

1. Cape Melville Leaf-Tailed Gecko

Wikimedia Commons

The Cape Melville Leaf-Tailed Gecko was discovered on an expedition to the northern tip of Queensland, Australia led by James Cook University’s Conrad Hoskin and Harvard University’s Tim Laman, who is also a National Geographic photographer. The gecko grows to almost eight inches long and hunts mainly at night, sitting motionless on a rock or in a tree and waiting for an unsuspecting insect or spider to pass by. The gecko’s camouflaged skin allows it to blend in with its surroundings.

2. Lyre Sponge

Photo by 2013 MBARI

Discovered in the northeast Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, this carnivorous sponge lives mostly in deep water (around 3399 meters deep) and looks like a harp. The lyre sponge—also known as Chondrocladia lyra—has two to six horizontal branches. Each branch holds more than 20 parallel vertical branches that are each capped with a small ball. When a plankton comes in contact with these branches, the lyre sponge is able to catch it as prey.

3. Paedophryne amanuensis

Photo by Christopher C. Austin

Just in case “Paedophryne amanuensis” is kind of a mouthful, you can also call this tiny frog the world’s smallest vertebrate. The frog was discovered near the Amau village in Papua, New Guinea. The average adult frog in this species only measures 7.7 millimeters; that’s small enough to fit easily on the surface of a dime.

4. Cape Melville Shade Skink

The Cape Melville Shade Skink was found on the same expedition as the Leaf-Tailed Gecko. However, unlike the gecko, the skink hunts mainly in the day. The skink’s scientific name is Saproscincus saltus; "saltus" means leaping. While hunting, the skink hops from boulder to boulder in search of insects.

5. Eugenia

Photo by David Rahebevitra

Not all new species are animals. This new species, Eugenia petrikensis, is a beautiful shrub that grows to two meters and has bright clusters of small magenta flowers. Eugenia was discovered this past year in Madagascar.

6. Semachrysa jade

Photo by Guek Hock Ping

Unlike most new species, scientists did not discover the Semachrysa jade butterfly. Instead, an avid photographer took its picture in a Malaysian park. He had no idea that the butterfly had never been documented before. It was only when Shaun Winterton, an entomologist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, discovered the photo on Flickr that he recognized the butterfly as a new species.

7. Juracimbrophlebia ginkgofolia

Artwork by Chen Wang

This new species of hangingflies was found fossilized in a Middle Jurassic deposit in China’s Inner Mongolia. These insects hung beneath foliage and captured other insects to eat.

8. Carolina Hammerhead

Photo by Save Our Seas Foundation / Peter Verhoog

The Carolina Hammerhead (Sphyrna gilbert) was discovered this year off the South Carolina coast. This new species of hammerhead shark looks almost identical to the scalloped hammerhead. However, the new species contains 10 fewer vertebrae and is genetically distinct.

9. Olinguito

Imagine a cross between a teddy bear and a housecat, and you’ve just pictured an olinguito. The animal, which is a little over a foot long and weighs around two pounds, is indigenous to the forests of Ecuador and Colombia. While it was first designated as a new species in 2013, the olinguito has been hiding in plain sight for a long time—at the Smithsonian-run National Zoo in Washington. For the past several years, scientists believed that the critter housed in the zoo was an olingo. The zoo first became curious when their supposed “olingo” wouldn’t mate with any other olingos. Turns out the olingo wasn’t picky; it was actually an olinguito. It was only during an expedition to South America that the olinguito was discovered as a separate species.

10. Blotched Boulder Frog

The Blotched Boulder Frog was also discovered on the Cape Melville expedition, but it has a unique quirk: the Blotched Boulder Frog only mates in the rain. During the dry season in Australia, the frog lives deep within a boulder field that’s cool and moist. The Blotched Boulder Frog only comes to the surface when it rains.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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