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10 Facts About Archaeopteryx

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Evolution is a marvelous thing. When Archaeopteryx was first discovered, it put a major feather in Darwin’s cap. Today, this raven-sized critter remains one of the most important—and controversial—dinosaurs ever found.

1. It Was the First Feathered Dino Known to Science.

Archaeopteryx initially came to light in the 1860s and caused quite a ruckus in the scientific community. Though the animal had several decidedly un-bird-like features (teeth, clawed fingers, a long, bony tail, etc.), some well-preserved skeletons were surrounded by a feathery coat. At the time, this was an earth-shattering discovery. Since then, however, dozens of other feathered dinos have been unearthed—including one species that was over 30 feet long!

2. Archaeopteryx Had Nasty-Looking “Velociraptor Claws."

Scott Hartman, Livescience

Beautiful and dangerous. Like the “raptors” in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (more on those guys here), the closely-related Archaeopteryx had a curved killing-claw on the second toe of each foot. These digits were hyperextendible, meaning that they could be held high off the ground to keep the tips sharp and ready for action. 

3. It Was Discovered Just Two Years After Charles Darwin Published On the Origin of Species.

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“The fossil Bird with the long tail and fingers to its wings,” Darwin gleefully wrote, “is by far the greatest fossil of recent times.” His book had predicted that a menagerie of new “transitional fossils” would soon be found and, with its combination of “reptilian” and “avian” traits, Archaeopteryx fit the bill perfectly. Today, our understanding of how birds evolved has gotten a lot more complicated, but the little creature that so excited Darwin remains an important piece of the puzzle.

4. A Swiss Power-Glider Was Named “The Ruppert Archaeopteryx” in 2001.

For your aeronautical pleasure, we humbly present this demo reel, courtesy of the Ruppert Composite YouTube channel. Enjoy:

5. Archaeopteryx Grew Up Like A Kiwi (No, Not The Fruit).

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Who says all dinosaurs are extinct? Birds (aka “avian dinosaurs”) are still at large and can tell us a lot about their prehistoric brethren. A 2009 study found that, after scrutinizing some tell-tale bone tissue, Archaeopteryx hatchlings had a much slower growth rate than today’s chickens and ducks. Instead, they were more comparable to modern kiwi birds, which can take more than five years to reach maturity. 

6. Archaeopteryx Rocked Some Modern-Looking Plumage.

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Traces of melanosomes, organelles which help dictate an organism’s coloration, have been found in a number of fossilized dino feathers. With the help of a special technique designed to detect these structures, scientists have found that Archaeopteryx had lightly-colored wing feathers with dark tips, a common pattern among present day birds. Not bad for a beastie that disappeared 150 million years ago! 

7. Several Predatory Dinos—Including Archaeopteryx—Even Had Bird-Like Brains.

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Calling someone “bird-brained” ought to be a compliment. Our winged friends use an awful lot of brainpower. To accommodate the mental demands of flying, their thinking organs are equipped with expanded sound and visual processing centers. A recent survey of dinosaur skulls revealed that Archaeopteryx and many of its long-gone cousins had similar (albeit, less fine-tuned) brain cavity proportions. 

8. One Scientist Wanted to Re-Name Archaeopteryx After the Mythical Griffin.

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Archaeopteryx means “ancient wing," which paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer considered a fitting name when he coined it in 1861. But not everybody was happy about his choice. “Darwin and his adherents,” wrote noted anti-evolutionist Johann Andreas Wagner, “will probably use the new discovery as … justification of their strange views upon the transition of animals.” Feeling that Archaeopteryx sounded too Darwinian, Wagner unsuccessfully proposed rechristening the fowl-like critter “Griphosaurus problematicus” (“the problematic Griffin lizard”). 

9. Could Archaeopteryx Fly? The Jury’s Still Out.

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Did Archaeopteryx live in trees or at ground level? And if flying wasn’t an option, did it glide? These debates rage on. In 2010, paleontologists Robert Nudds and Gareth Dyke claimed that Archaeopteryx’s weak feather shafts (those pen-like structures that give feathers their shape) would have made powered flight impossible. However, some of the pair’s critics later cried foul, arguing that they’d overestimated the creature’s weight and, thus, distorted the research. We may never know if Archaeopteryx took to the ancient skies, but getting answers is usually a matter of asking the right questions.

10. One 1897 Stage Play Features A Woman Giving Birth to an Archaeopteryx.

In one version of Ubu Cocu (“Ubu Cuckolded”)—a nonsensical avant-garde comedy written by French symbolist Alfred Jarry—the wife of our protagonist infuriates her spouse by birthing an Archaeopteryx offstage. The 2009 film Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs also includes a fleeting Archaeopteryx cameo.

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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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