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10 Things You Might Not Know About Spinosaurus

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ThinkStock

Spinosaurus is one mysterious critter. Why don’t we know more about it? Blame the Nazis (seriously). Here are 10 remarkable factoids about this incredible dino.

1. It Was One of the Largest Carnivorous Dinosaurs of All Time.

Spinosaurus was big. Just how big, exactly? That’s difficult to ascertain, since, to date, no complete skeletons have been unearthed. Some estimate that a large adult could be almost 50 feet long, but the general consensus holds that a maximum length nearer to 41 to 43 feet is far more likely.

2. Spinosaurus was Chosen as the Villain in Jurassic Park III Because of Its Weird Profile.

“A lot of dinosaurs have a very similar silhouette to the T. rex,” said director Joe Johnston, who’d been looking for a new reptilian antagonist to replace Tyrannosaurus in the third film, “and we wanted the audience to instantly recognize this as something else.”

3. Some of the Creature’s Dramatic Spines Were Over Five Feet Tall.

Wikimedia Commons

When you’ve got accessories like these things—known scientifically as “neural spines”—sticking out of your vertebrae, nobody tells you to “show some backbone.”

4. Spinosaurus Wasn’t the Only Sail-Backed Dino.

Wikimedia Commons

Ouranosaurus (pictured above) was a majestic African herbivore complete with a series of similar-looking spines. Additionally, one enigmatic beast by the name of Deinocheirus appears to have had some too.

5. Paleo-Artists Mis-Drew Its Head For Almost Eighty Years.

Babble Trish

Dinosaur drawings have fairly short shelf-lives (at least in the accuracy department). Until some groundbreaking new discoveries were made in the 1990s and 2000s, paleontologists lacked any good Spinosaurus skull material. Some decently-preserved Spino remains had been found nearly eight decades earlier, but they didn’t include a head. Artists, therefore, gave an educated guess and largely portrayed it with a Tyrannosaurus-like skull for most of the 20th century. It was an honest mistake. We now know that Spinosaurus had, instead, a long, narrow snout—making these pictures (like the one you can see here) obsolete.

6. Frustrated Paleontologists Named One of Its Close Relatives Irritator challengeri Out of Spite.

Wikimedia Commons

When dealing with fossils, some assembly is usually required. However, things got a bit extreme in 1995, when a team of scientists purchased the skull of an unknown dinosaur from a Brazilian fossil-poacher. The man had (most disingenuously) smothered the poor thing in a thick layer of car body filler to make his find look bigger than it actually was. As one can imagine, removing this substance proved highly “irritating” for the buyers, hence that strange scientific name.

7. Spinosaurus Has Been Featured on an Array of International Postage Stamps.

It may be extinct, but Spinosaurus’ likeness sure does make for a great stamp—at least the governments of such countries as Liberia and Guyana seem to think so.

8. Spinosaurus Had Plenty of Menu Options.

Thinkstock

Like an overgrown heron, Spinosaurus is generally thought to have snagged fishy treats from the North African mangroves it stalked some 97 million years ago. Having a mouth full of long, crocodile-like teeth certainly would’ve helped. But a 2013 paper argues that its diet would have allowed for a lot more variety. Since the animal’s jaws were imperfectly-designed for grappling with fish (at least compared to a modern alligator’s), Spinosaurus probably sought out other entrees as well.

9. Spinosaurus Had Some Really Big Competition.

Deltadromeus, via Wikimedia Commons

No one knows exactly why Spinosaurus had that trademark sail on its back. However, with flesh-eating neighbors like the 26-foot Deltadromeus and the T. rex-sized Carcharodontosaurus sharing its habitat, this apparatus might’ve helped Spinosaurus scare off rival killers by making the creature look bigger or more intimidating than it actually was.

10. The Best Spinosaurus Fossils Ever Found Were Destroyed in World War II.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1944, the most complete collection of Spinosaurus remains science has so far unearthed were obliterated by the British Royal Air Force. Thirty-two years earlier, they’d been sent to German paleontologist Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach, who resided in Munich. Unfortunately, Stromer’s outspoken anti-Nazi sentiments doomed the fossils he cherished. In an act of retribution, Third Reich officials refused to let him move his collection to safer ground during the Second World War, and the museum that housed them was later bombed amidst an RAF raid.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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