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10 Animals with Surprisingly Smart Social Lives

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ThinkStock

They may not be able to type out pithy messages in 140 characters or less, and they’re definitely not networking online, but you’ll be surprised at exactly how social certain animals are. Check out these ten animals that might have more of a social network than you.

1. Cows in Cliques Are Smarter Than Lone Bovines

You already know that cows are typically found in herds, but it’s been proven that grouping is actually beneficial to their intelligence. Researcher put calves together and tested them on “reversal learning,” in which they were trained to associate a black or white square with food. Once that had been learned, the researchers switched which color meant food. The clique of calves learned the “reverse” task much faster than the isolated cows. In another test, an unfamiliar object was placed in the pen with a group of cows. The band of bovines grew tired of the new object much faster than the solo cows did, leading researchers to theorize that socially adept cows assimilate better—an important aspect of learning.

2. Female Mule Deer Have Each Other’s Backs

When a female mule deer goes out to graze, she leaves her babies with the other females of the group. If a predator happens by, the other female mule deer will protect all of the nearby fawns, even those belonging to a completely different species of deer, by attacking the bad guy themselves. And you thought you had a good babysitter.

3. Coyotes and Badgers Team Up to Hunt

Sometimes, animals will even cross enemy lines to work toward the greater good. For example, coyotes and badgers tag-team to create a living hell for their prey, eliminating all but the smallest chance for escape. If the prey is above ground, the coyote chases it. If the prey tries to disappear, the badger takes control. It’s a terrible situation for prairie dogs and ground squirrels, but it works out well for both the coyotes and the badgers. Even though they’re actually competing for food, it’s still a win: they’re both able to conserve more energy while taking advantage of each other’s hunting skills.

4. Orcas Teach Their Friends How To Fish

It’s not just old dogs that learn new tricks. Killer whales have been observed picking up new behaviors from one another. Staff at a large sea park observed one of their orcas chewing up the fish chum he was fed. He’d then spit it out onto the surface of the water and wait for a bird to take the bait. While the clueless seagull was snacking, bam—so was the orca. That’s pretty smart, but what’s more impressive is that the whale taught his tricky ways to at least three other orcas in the same enclosure.

5. Rhesus Monkeys Starve Themselves To Protect Another

In 1964, researchers placed a pair of rhesus monkeys in a predicament: If one monkey pulled a chain, he received food to eat, but a shock was delivered to the other monkey at the same time. After he figured out what was happening, the monkey in control of the situation refused to pull the chain for 12 days—he was literally starving to death before he would hurt his fellow test subject again. The lesson? Monkeys have empathy—something even some humans lack.

6. Dolphins Feast Together

In the ocean, up to six dolphins will team up to herd fish together into small groups called “bait balls.” Once the fish are crowded together, the dolphins line up to create a wave that drives the fish in toward shore, making them easy prey—and an easy lunch.

7. Elephants Talk To Each Other (Sometimes In Secret Tones)

Not only do elephants communicate with each other, sometimes they do it in tones humans can’t even hear. After years of observing elephants in the wild, researchers have found that elephants use more than 70 kinds of vocal sounds and 160 visual and tactile signals, expressions, and gestures. They can mean anything from “Let’s go” to “Help, I’m lost.” The latter is often done in a low frequency that will travel for miles through forest, letting the pachyderms connect without alerting other animals to their presence.

8. Cuttlefish Show Their True Colors

It’s pretty normal for us to be selective about which part of ourselves we want to reveal. We show one side to a boss, for instance, and another to a best friend. But cuttlefish can literally split their bodies into different patterns to accomplish different things at the same time. One half of its body may be designed to attract a mate, while the other half is a completely different design to conceal itself from predators. They can even use certain colors to assert dominance in social situations, showing that they’re aware of social hierarchies and structures.

9. Spiders Know That Millions of Legs Are Better Than Eight

What’s more terrifying than the thought of thousands (or millions!) of spiders working together toward one common goal? Not much, but few things are as brilliant, either. Certain species of spiders called “social spiders” act in unison to create massive webs that catch way more prey than one little web would ever catch on its own. In 2007, spiders spun webs that spanned 200 yards in a Texas park. It was later determined that more than 12 families of spiders had participated in building the massive trap.

10. Penguins Get in Sync

Not only do emperor penguins huddle together for warmth, but they also make very specific, synchronized movements that further the effort to retain heat. Roughly every 30 to 60 seconds, all of the penguins in one row of the huddle move anywhere from 2 to 4 inches in the same direction. The penguins in the next row copy the movement soon after, over and over until the whole huddle has completed the tiny maneuver. Researchers theorize that keeping the huddle in constant motion results in a denser (thus warmer) packing, and also keeps the penguins’ blood circulation flowing.

Want to learn more about the animal kingdom’s amazingly social creatures? Tune in to Nova tonight at 9 pm Eastern/8 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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