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6 Weird Animal Phenomena Investigated by Science 

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These animal kingdom oddities may seem like urban legends, but they all actually happened and had real-life scientists scratching their heads.

1. Exploding Toads in Germany

While toads often inflate themselves to appear bigger to predators, they don’t often outright explode. Except, that is, in April 2005 in Hamburg, Germany when thousands of frogs blew apart over a period of a few days, sometimes strewing little toad parts up to a meter around.

Dr. Franz Mutchsmann, a veterinarian from Berlin, came up with a theory for the toads' apparently spontaneous explosions: A flock of crows had recently taken up residence in parts of Hamburg, and they had developed a taste for toad liver. The crows would swoop down, thrust their beaks inside the toads, and steal their livers before the toads even knew what had happened. The toads would instinctively puff themselves up to scare the crows away, but with the holes the crows left in their skin, the pressure would push their insides to the outside, bursting the toad into pieces.

2. Globsters

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All over the world, huge lumps of unidentified flesh, known as "globsters," wash up on shore. Often, they look like animals completely unknown to science. They can weigh up to several tons and have been spotted on beaches everywhere throughout the last century.

So what are they? Often, they’re initially believed to be giant squids and other rare (or non-existent) marine animals, but scientists have found that the explanation isn’t quite that amazing.

So far, every globster discovered has been definitively identified (before it washes back out to sea or is tampered with in some way) as the remains of an ordinary creature, usually a whale. For example, a globster found in Chile in 2003 was discovered to be the skin of a sperm whale. Since dead animals in the ocean simply drift, anything left over from predators and natural decay can get caught in a strong tide and wash up on dry land to gross us all out.

3. Mike the Headless Chicken

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In 1945, farmer Lloyd Olsen took one of his many chickens to the chopping block to prepare dinner for his family. After decapitating the chicken, something strange happened: The chicken didn’t die.

The headless chicken, which the family later named Mike, continued to wander around the farm and steadfastly refused to be turned into the Olsen’s supper. The Olsens discovered that they could still feed and water Mike by way of an eyedropper inserted into his neck hole. After that, they took the chicken on the road, showing him off as Mike the Headless Chicken.

What magic kept Mike alive? Sheer luck, as it happens. Scientists at the University of Utah who examined Mike found that Olsen barely missed Mike’s brain stem, which allowed him to continue walking and moving even after his decapitation. Unfortunately, Mike died when his family lost his eyedropper and were unable to help him when he began to choke on a kernel of corn.

4. Thousands of Eyeless Fish Wash Up on the Same Beach. Twice.

American Down Under

A few years back, the news was rife with stories about mass animal deaths, especially ones involving birds. Almost all had completely normal explanations (like fireworks scaring birds into flying into trees and buildings), but a few ended up going more or less unexplained.

On the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand, thousands of dead snapper washed up overnight in early 2011, many of them with no eyes. Although wildlife authorities looked into the event, no official explanation was ever announced. An early statement indicated that it may have been “deliberate.”

Almost two years later to the day, the same thing happened again, at the same beach. Thousands of snapper popped up with strange wounds on their bodies. This time, officials concluded that it was most likely a broken net being hauled by an illegal fishing boat, though they didn’t say how (or if) it was connected to the previous deaths.

5. The Malawi Terror Beast

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In 2003, villagers in the Dowa district of Malawi fled in fear of a creature dubbed the “Terror Beast,” an unidentified animal that killed three and injured sixteen. The creature badly maimed its victims, tearing off limbs and disemboweling the dead. Since most animals only attack out of self-defense or to feed, this appeared to be extremely unusual behavior.

The villagers described it as some variety of large dog. What’s more, a similar animal killed five and injured 20 a year before. That one was killed by authorities and found to be a rabid hyena, but survivors of that first attack alleged the creature was too large to have really been a hyena and that the animal killed was not the one which attacked them.

Meanwhile, the Terror Beast, which may have also been a rabid hyena, was never found.

6. The Florida “Skunk Ape” Photos

In 2000, Florida residents in Campbell County began seeing a large, ape-like creature and finding dead cats throughout their neighborhoods. Some believed it might be a legendary Bigfoot-esque creature known as the “skunk ape.” Things got especially weird when an anonymous woman sent two pictures of the creature to the police.

Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist, became interested in the case and began to archive newspaper reports as well as copies of the letter and photographs sent by the anonymous woman. The Skunk Ape eventually disappeared and the photographs were never positively identified.

Coleman has a pretty good explanation sitting in plain view on his site (although he and the cryptozoological community don't buy it). In a comparison image created by a Canadian Wildlife Service biologist named Tony Scheunhamme, the skunk ape is compared with an ordinary orangutan. Not coincidentally, animal control had already been looking into a lost orangutan.

As for how an orangutan got loose in Campbell County, that’s as much of a mystery as anything else.

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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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