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11 Animals With Amazing Prosthetics

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ThinkStock

Think artificial limbs are only for those of us with opposable thumbs and language skills? Think again. Thanks to technology, innovation, and a little bit of luck, animals who have lost paws, flippers, beaks, and tails can use modern prosthetics to make amazing comebacks.

1. Winter the Dolphin: Tail

In December 2005, a fisherman found a three-month-old dolphin tangled up in the ropes of a crab trap off the east coast of Florida.  Although local marine mammal veterinarians were able to save her life, they couldn’t save the little dolphin’s tail. The losses obviously affected the dolphin’s ability to swim, so a human prosthetics company joined forces with the marine vets to create a substitute tail made from the same plastic as human prosthetics. Winter the dolphin has done swimmingly with her new tail, adapting to a new swim pattern and adjusting to newer and better versions as the technology improves.

2. Beauty the Eagle: Beak

Take away an eagle’s beak, and you take away its ability to eat, drink, groom - even defend itself. When Beauty the eagle was found at an Alaska landfill in 2005, she was slowly starving to death because a poacher had shot off most of her upper beak. An engineer spent 200 hours developing a nylon-composite beak for Beauty that helps her drink and grip food. Though she’ll never be able to live in the wild again - the beak isn’t strong enough to kill prey - Beauty now spends her days attending lectures as the spokesbird against raptor poaching.

3. Tzvika the Turtle: Legs

You might think that being on the wrong end of a lawn mower would mean certain death for a turtle, but with today’s technology, that’s not necessarily so. After mower blades severely damaged Tzvika’s shell and caused a spinal injury that paralyzed her rear limbs, veterinarians outfitted her with a new set of wheels—literally. A set of tiny tires attach to the turtle’s underside, elevating her to keep her shell from being worn down while still allowing her to walk. Slowly, of course—she’s still a turtle.

4. Indio the Horse: Leg

An animal’s need for a prosthetic isn’t always due to careless humans. Indio the horse kicked through a metal stall wall, more or less severing his hoof in the process. Though an injury like that usually results in euthanization, his owners hoped that there was a different solution. A veterinarian stepped in and was able to remove the rest of the damaged lower leg, replacing it with a prosthetic that allows Indio to function almost completely normally. In fact, Indio was up and moving on his new leg just an hour after the surgery.

5. Mister Stubbs the Alligator: Tail

Chances are, you’ve never been on the losing end of a gator fight. Mister Stubbs has been, and he has a stump where his tail once was to prove it. After he and 31 other alligators were found in an illegal shipment of exotic animals, a team of experts came together to figure out exactly how a prosthetic gator tail would work. After accounting for variables like gravity, weight, and buoyancy, the team developed a three-foot-long rubber tail that attaches to Mister Stubbs with nylon straps. Though a better version is in development—the current tail requires an inflatable water wing attachment for stability in the water—Mister Stubbs is doing well enough that his name is no longer accurate.

6. Stumpy the Kangaroo: Leg

Not that designing any animal prosthetic is easy, but creating a suitably springy leg for a kangaroo is particularly challenging. Because a kangaroo typically hops from point A to point B instead of walking, the prosthetic created for Stumpy, a red kangaroo who lives in an Ohio sanctuary, had to be able to withstand specific movements and forces. A veterinary medicine professor and licensed human prosthesis orthotist joined forces to create an appendage that works similarly to the artificial limb used by amputee runners.

7. Girl the Tiger: Hip

Just like your grandmother, Girl the Malayan tiger suffered from arthritis. Unlike your nana, Girl underwent a three-hour procedure in 2011 that fitted her with a prosthetic hip first developed for dogs. Though the surgery was tricky—the tiger’s heart almost stopped at one point—Girl made it through and was reported to be doing as well as any tiger could be doing after such a serious procedure.

8. Naki’o the Dog:  All Four Paws

When Naki’o the dog was just five weeks old, he and the rest of the puppies from his litter were abandoned in a foreclosed home in Nebraska in the dead of winter. Stuck in the house’s freezing cellar, the poor puppy’s paws were submerged in a puddle that later froze around his feet, leaving him with four stumps by the time rescuers stepped in. A veterinarian’s assistant raised the money to buy prosthetics for Naki’o’s rear legs, but once the pet prosthetics company saw how well the dog adapted, they offered to make the front two for free. Today, the “bionic dog” runs, plays, and even swims just like any other pup.

9. Oscar the Cat: Paws

If there’s a bionic dog, you know there’s also a bionic cat. Enter Oscar, a black cat from England who was asleep in a sunny field when a combine harvester managed to sneak up on him, slicing off his back paws. Though his owners feared the worst, Oscar ended up being a good candidate for titanium rod implants. Veterinarians and engineers say the design of the implants was inspired by the way deer antlers grow through the skin.

10. Tungo the Penguin:  Beak

After getting a little too up-close-and-personal with a boat propeller, a five-month-old Magellanic penguin named Tungo was left with a shattered beak. Tungo would have starved without the help of a veterinarian who was able to salvage pieces of the beak, fashioning them into a prosthetic that allows him to catch his own fish again.

11. Hope the Giraffe: Legs

Although she was born with a hoof deformity, Hope the giraffe has no problem getting around. The deformity occurred because of tendons in her foot that restricted her legs and leg growth, stopping them from developing properly. A medical team began treating the condition within hours of her birth, eventually fitting Hope with shoes that had an external tendon system to keep her hooves aligned properly. As she grew and her legs strengthened, less and less prosthetic was needed. Today, Hope is prosthetic-free, and it’s hard to tell that she ever needed any corrective action at all.

Want to meet more incredible bionic animals who have used technology to survive? Tune in to Nature on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central on Wednesday April 9. 

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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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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