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CSIRO

11 Unexpected Accessories Designed for Experiments

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CSIRO

Look into the "methods" section of any given animal experiment and you'll find descriptions ranging from the ghastly to the absurd. Researchers have crafted chicken goggles, tiny cardboard hats, and remote-control whale-snot collectors—all in the name of science.

The road to enlightenment has taken some pretty strange turns over the last century. Here are a few of the weirdest pit stops.

1. Custom Dinosaur Costumes

As any third-grader can tell you, dinosaurs never really disappeared; they just turned into birds. When a question of dinosaur behavior arises, researchers often look to the henhouse for answers. One recent experiment took a literal approach to the chicken-dinosaur relationship, strapping a group of young chickens with miniature dinosaur tails to find out how theropod dinosaurs walked.

The prosthetic tails were crafted from modeling clay and wooden dowels, painstakingly fitted to each chicken’s rear end and fastened with Velcro. The chicks started young with their costumes, which meant that they learned to walk like dinosaurs before they learned to walk like chickens.

2. Dung Beetle Hats

Marcus Byrne via Livescience

When you’re lost in the desert on a moonless night, how do you get your poop home? (N.B.: you’re a dung beetle in this situation.) You navigate by the endless, comforting light of the Milky Way, of course. Or at least you do until some meddling researcher comes along and obstructs your vision with a wee little cardboard hat. Then you get lost, and roll your poop-ball in aimless, meandering loops. And when the almighty researchers remove your cardboard blinders, you gratefully roll your poop homeward.

3. Lobster Love Hotel

You wouldn’t know it by looking at them, but lobsters are actually quite particular. Unless the conditions are just right, it’s nearly impossible to get a lobster in the mood. For this information and much, much more (perhaps too much), we can thank marine biologist Jelle Atema.

Atema began his career as a crustacean matchmaker in the 1970s when the sex lives of lobsters were still shrouded in mystery. Burning questions included, “How do they do it?” “Who seduces who?”, and “Does a lobster have a penis?”

To find out, the team started a seawater laboratory, complete with bare 30-gallon tanks like the ones you’d see at the supermarket. The laboratory lobsters were not impressed, and what mating did occur was brief, perfunctory, and uninformative. Suspecting that the unsexy laboratory accommodations were to blame, Atema and his team constructed custom lobster love hotels, complete with gravel floors, decorative (and edible) hermit crabs, and even private rooms. The rooms, hand-crafted from concrete and cinder blocks, were just the right size for an amorous lobster couple, and the placement of the little love shacks against the glass front of the tank gave the lucky couple the illusion of privacy while providing a steamy show for the fascinated researchers.

Lobsters in the wild are nocturnal and do their wooing in the dark. Atema installed red darkroom-style lighting in the laboratory, which he switched on when the sun went down so his team wouldn’t miss a minute of in-tank action.

At last, the lobsters were satisfied in more ways than one, and in the seedy red light of the lobster love hotel, Atema got his answers: “It’s complicated”; “The females pick their mates”; and “Actually, they have two.”

4. Bug Backpacks

How do you know where a honeybee goes? Fit it with a tiny backpack. To understand why Australian honeybees survived while bee colonies around the world underwent massive collapse, scientists attached little sensors to 5,000 Tasmanian honeybees. First, the insects were refrigerated, which triggered a rest state. Researchers glued itty bitty RFID sensorsonto the groggy bees’ backs. Once they woke, the bees were released and flew back to their hive to resume daily life, reporting their whereabouts all the while. “This is a non-destructive process,” said lead researcher Paulo de Souza, “and the sensors appear to have no impact on the bee's ability to fly and carry out its normal duties.”

The bees were not the first insects to get the knapsack treatment. A 2010 Department of Defense study wired giant flower beetles with robotic backpacks, turning the bionic bugs into wireless, remote-controlled vehicles. A 2013 experiment attempted to unlock the mystery of dragonfly brains in flight as the backpack-burdened bugs buzzed around.

5. Jigsaw Jenny

On the other end of the sexual fussiness spectrum, you’ll find turkeys. Scientists and farmers have long marveled at toms’ (male turkeys) incredibly low standards for a female turkey's (a.k.a. Jenny) beauty. How low can those standards go? One research duo decided to find out.

The scientists built a sort of jigsaw-puzzle Jenny—a life-sized model of a female turkey that could be assembled and disassembled piecemeal. Jenny brought all the boys to the yard in spectacular fashion: When researchers removed her wings, legs, and feet, the toms still attempted to mate with her. The scientists removed her body next to no availeven when Jenny was just a balsa-wood head on a stick, the males still found her irresistible. Bemused, the researchers took Jenny away and replaced her with the withered head of a decapitated female. The toms found this new Jenny equally enchanting and tried to mate with her, too. The researchers were forced to conclude that a beautiful face—or any face at all—is really all that matters to an amorous turkey.

6. Chicken Goggles

The eye of a chicken is a very special thing. A 1988 Cornell study found that nearsighted baby chicks wearing goggles with special lenses scored as well as their keen-eyed peers on a vision test. Just like humans, as long as they wore their glasses, the myopic chickens did fine. “It’s only when they take off the glasses that they’re embarrassed by the situation,” said researcher Howard C. Howland. Decades later, the chicken goggles study is still considered a turning point in the science of vision.

Chickens, as everyone knows, are a fearsome bunch. They have a bad habit of killing and eating each other at the slightest provocation. The sight of blood, or anything red, can drive a chicken to violence. Enter rose-colored chicken spectacles. When the whole world is pink, nothing looks red. To this day, poultry farmers around the world rely on chicken glasses to keep the peace.

7. Rat Casino

Thinkstock

Rats are wonderful animals. They’re smart and eager to please, and their brains bear remarkable similarities to those of humans. That’s why when a team of psychologists wanted to learn about people with gambling addictions, they erected a rat casino.

Like a granny feeding quarters into the one-armed bandit, the lab rats were quickly transfixed. The casino apparatus amounted to a cabinet full of levers that rewarded repetitive behavior with sugar pellets—but not all the time. With each failed attempt to win a pellet, the rats grew agitated, desperate, and more determined to try again.

The rats’ frustration was not entirely for naught. The team conducted a second study in the rat casino using what they learned the first time around to reduce test rats’ problem-gambling behaviors. The experiment was successful and the results may someday lead to treatments for humans battling addiction.

8. Shrimp Treadmill

Hell hath no fury like a political conservative who thinks his or her tax dollars are being misspent. When word got out that biologist Lou Burnett had built little aquatic treadmills for a shrimp experiment, the uproar was deafening. Mike Huckabee went on the record: “I don't want my shrimp going to the gym."

The study itself was a legitimate and worthwhile investigation into the effects of water quality on crustaceans’ ability to breathe (and therefore survive). The experimental design—unfortunately for the indignant researchers—was absolutely hilarious.

9. Star Wars, Special Locust Edition

Joining a swirling swarm of your peers is a lot harder than it looks—just ask any locust. To find out how individual locusts could navigate a rapid, kinetic swarm without smashing into each other, Dr. Claire Rind spliced together a special locust edition of Star Wars (Episode IV. Don’t worry). The video featured just the scenes of spacecraft in battle and in flight. Rind’s team put the TV on and tracked the eyes and nerve cells of their tiny audience as the bugs watched the space opera unfold.

Believe it or not, we can add the locust cinema to the list of absurd but important experiments. Dr. Rind later teamed up with engineers in Switzerland to develop a robotic locust that performed extremely well on crash-avoidance tests. The resulting programming has potential applications for automobile safety.

10. Remote-Control Whale-Snot Collector

Zoological Society of London

Whales are notoriously difficult to study in the wild. They dive deep, migrate hundreds of miles per year, and will not hold still to give blood samples. But no matter how hard it is, monitoring whale health is essential. These beautiful creatures are essential parts of marine ecosystems. To save them, we must understand them, and to understand them, we must get creative.

Creativity was the name of the game for Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, who understood that one whale fluid is almost as good as any other. She realized that unlike their blood, which is dangerous to collect, whales practically give their snot away each time they rise to the surface and clear their blowholes. The problem then became how to collect airborne whale snot. The solution? A remote-controlled helicopter strapped with a petri dish. The snot-collecting helicopter buzzed into a spout of whale gunk, did its job, and was on its way back to the lab before the whale even noticed.

11. Brady Barr’s Hippo Device

Speaking of collecting bodily fluids—have you ever tried bottling the sweat of a hippopotamus? (Please say no.) Brady Barr has. Bioengineer Christopher Viney has, too.

Hippos excrete an oozy red substance known as super-sweat that chemists believed might have antibiotic and UV-blocking properties. The only way to find out, reasoned Viney, would be to test the sweat. Unfortunately, the reality was even more complicated than it sounds. Viney initially collected his oily sweat samples from the floor of Bulgy the hippo’s enclosure at the Fresno Zoo. When elderly Bulgy died, Viney thought he was out of luck and raw materials. Enter madman/herpetologist/TV host Brady Barr and his hippo device. I’ll let David Letterman explain:

Barr’s attempts to join the hippo community were ultimately rebuffed, and he went away with no sweat samples save his own. At least we’ve got the whole thing on tape.

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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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May 23, 2017
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