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18 Awesome Facts About Giant Isopods

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There are 20 known species in the genus Bathynomus;  B. giganteus, or the giant isopod, is the biggest. Yes, they're kind of creepy looking. But they're also kind of cute! Here are a few things we know about these Internet-beloved creatures.

1. They’re not bugs.

They’re crustaceans, and are closely related to marine crustaceans like shrimp and crabs, and terrestrial crustaceans like the pillbug (Armadillidium vulgare).

2. They’re bottom dwellers.

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Giant isopods live between 550 to 7020 feet deep (and potentially deeper), and prefer a mud or clay floor, which they burrow into for shelter. “Bathynomus giganteus is more of a coldwater species,” says Dee Ann Auten, an Aquarist II at the Aquarium of the Pacific, which has four giant isopods in its Wonders of the Deep gallery. “They live in the Pacific Ocean, off Japan and in the South China Sea. That’s the kind of area where you would find them.”

3. They get big. Really big.

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Typically, giant isopods are between 7.5 and 14.2 inches in length, but they can get much bigger: One specimen pulled up with an ROV in 2010 was 2.5 feet long. Scientists aren't quite sure why these isopods get so enormous, but believe that their huge size might be an adaptation that helps them survive the extreme pressure of the deep ocean.

4. They come in different colors.

The giant isopod shell—which is comprised of overlapping segments—comes in two varieties: brown and pale lilac.

5. They’re carnivores.

Though they’re generally believed to be scavengers, feasting on dead animals that fall from above, some evidence suggests that they might also eat slow-moving live animals like sponges. Giant isopods also attack trawl catches.

6. They can go a very long time without eating.

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One giant isopod in Japan went for five years without eating a single bite before dying earlier this year. Auten attempts to feed her giant isopods every day, a ritual that requires a lot of patience. “The trick is what to feed them and how to eat them,” she says. “Here at the Aquarium of the Pacific, the hit is mackerel. It's usually what I feed them. I’ll butterfly a dead mackerel so that the insides are coming out, and then I will present it in front the isopod. I try offering food once a day and that's just because one day they might not be active as much, and one day they could be really hungry and I might miss that opportunity.”

All four of the giant isopods Auten cares for have eaten within the last year (Auten keeps track of who’s who based on the spines that are missing from their tails).  “One of them ate twice last year, one of them ate four times last year, one of them ate almost ten times last year. Another one I think was seven times,” she says. “It's fascinating and it's rewarding when you put so much effort into taking care of them and a lot of patience and you finally figure out this what they like to eat.”

7. But when they do eat, they gorge themselves.

Giant isopods have four sets of jaws—which are adapted to cut and tear at prey—and they get a workout when the animals are hungry. “When they're hungry and they're eating, definitely have a lot of food around them, because they'll keep eating,” Auten says. “They'll eat a lot at one time and then they can go for a long time without eating. There’s a comic of one giant isopod eating a dead whale, and it eats the whole thing except for the bones. It's sitting on its back like ‘ughh I'm full now.’ That's totally true! If they eat, they eat a lot.” In fact, they eat so much that they compromise their ability to move.

Still, they’re not aggressive feeders. “I've never had [an occasion] where they all ate at once,” Auten says. “I will make sure to bring enough food for all of them but whenever I feed them, it's one will eat at that one setting. They definitely would not fight.” And apparently, they’re not picky: Three giant isopods collected in the southern Gulf of Mexico had ingested large quantities of plastic.

8. They live in a constant state of semi-hibernation.

Since meals in the deep sea can be few and really far between, giant isopods limit their energy expenditure. “They have a slower metabolism,” Auten says. “Their bodies mechanics are like that because they're deep sea creatures and don’t find food all the time. So they're able to slow down their metabolism and energy level so they can survive. Watching ours, you can see they do that. They don't move around that much. They only ever move around when I'm trying to feed them. Normally they're just sitting there.”

9. They have something in common with cats.

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And it’s all in the eyes. Giant isopods have widely spaced, fixed compound eyes with more than 4000 individual facets. Cats and the crustaceans (and many other animals) have a reflective layer at the back of the eye called the tapeum, which reflects light back through the retina and increases the ability to see at night. It’s also what makes cats' and isopods' eyes appear to glow.

10. They probably don’t see all that well...

It’s pretty dark where isopods live, so, according to Auten, vision isn’t really a factor for them, or many other deep sea animals. “They use other senses to maneuver, to communicate, to find food, to find a mate,” she says. “I've done experiments with my flashlight to see if the isopods sensed a difference in light or anything like that. They don't move, they're not doing anything. Therefore, I'm thinking that maybe they might not see well.”

11. ...So They Use Their Antennae.

Giant isopods have two sets of antennae that they use to experience the environment around them. “The small antennas are used more for chemical sensing,” Auten says, “and they have large antennas that are used for physical sensing. When you put the food in front of them, you're letting them sense it, physically and chemically.” They might have a sensory receptor that responds to distortion in the water around them.

12. Want to tell males from females? Look for the peenies.

Dee Ann Auten

Female isopods have a brood pouch, or marsupium, located on their undersides, where they hold 20 to 30 eggs (top right). Males have two specialized organs: Small white appendages, called peenies (top left), that carry sperm (fun fact: smaller isopods usually have bigger peenies, according to Auten), and appendices masculinae (bottom), which they use to transfer sperm to the female. “They'll inject that sperm transfer organ anywhere within the female after she molts—because she's softer—and she's able to take on that sperm,” Auten says.

13. They have the largest eggs of all marine invertebrates.

They measure .51 inches in diameter. Females don’t eat when they’re brooding; instead, they bury themselves in sediment to reduce energy use and to protect the eggs.

14. And babies come out looking just like big isopods.

Juvenile giant isopods, or mancae, don’t have a larval stage; they’re approximately 3.4 inches long when they emerge and look exactly like adults. All they’re missing is the last pair of pereopods, or legs; when fully grown, they will have seven pairs of legs total.

15. To Grow, They Shed their Exoskeletons.

Younger isopods molt often to gain size, but “when they get older, they don't molt as much,” Auten says. “They are capable of molting, but they’ve already reached their size, so they’re not going to molt as much—or they’re not going to molt at all, because molting is only for growth.”

16. Isopods bite!

Photo courtesy Flickr user Damien du Toit; cc

“I wear gloves when I work with ours,” Auten says. “They're scavengers—they're definitely going to bite on anything. But it's a small bite, it's nothing big. They don't have big mouths.”

17. They curl up when threatened.

Auten says that isopods can potentially be eaten by anything that’s bigger than them, and when they’re threatened, they curl up into a little ball—just like their land-locked relatives, pillbugs. “If it's eating something and a fish is trying to come over and take the food from them or bite their appendages, they'll roll over to keep their food or to keep their soft organs underneath protected,” Auten says.”They would cover themselves so that nothing will attach to them. Or they'll hide in a crevasse somewhere so that nothing can find them.”

18. There’s a whole album dedicated to songs about them.

It’s called Songs About Giant Isopods, and you can listen to it here.

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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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