CLOSE
Original image
Jessanne Collins

11 Fascinating Animals to Visit on Kangaroo Island

Original image
Jessanne Collins

When British explorers happened upon Kangaroo Island—a Puerto Rico-sized drop of land south of what today is the city of Adelaide—the animals took them by surprise. Unlike the wild ‘roos of the mainland, who knew to keep their distance, these creatures were utterly tame and approachable (so much so that the arriving crew reportedly slaughtered 31 for a giant kangaroo stew—gotta love those colonial instincts). The reason the animals were unaccustomed to humans (and tragically unfamiliar with their bad habits) was because no humans lived there. Aboriginals had once inhabited the island, but they’d abandoned it at least 2000 years prior, for reasons unknown.

After a couple of centuries of life alongside human settlers, the animals here are understandably a little more wary—but the humans, for their part, have gotten a lot more respectful. Which means that today, this one of the most incredible places to get up close and personal with some very interesting creatures out in the wild. The best way to meet them is to tour with a local company like Exceptional Kangaroo Island. Experienced guides are familiar with the animals and their habitats—so they can probably find you a tricky-to-spot echidna and point out where a koala is likely to be hiding in the crook of a tree—but they also ensure that you won’t bother the animals in the process. (And in lieu of kangaroo stew, they serve fantastic lunches that highlight the local produce.)

1. Kangaroos Kangaroos Kangaroos!

KI has it’s own subspecies of kangaroo (aptly called the Kangaroo Island, or Sooty, kangaroo). They’re shorter and stockier than their close relatives, the Western Gray, and chocolate brown in color. Like all ‘roos, they can hop very swiftly using both sets of paws and their tail—hopping is a highly efficient method of locomotion, because it “recycles” energy, like bouncing on a pogo stick. Tour companies have special access to areas of the national parks that are closed to the public, where you can see wild kangaroo populations which have been carefully acclimated to respectful visits from humans up close.

2. Cape Barren Geese

Fifty years ago, the Cape Barren goose was about to go extinct—but thanks to rehabilitation projects their population is healthy again. And yet, this light gray goose—which has a striking bright yellow bill—is one of the rarest in the world, making its home primarily along Australia’s southern coast.

3. Echidnas

They look something like a porcupine mixed with an anteater but aren’t related to either—the echidna is a monotreme, or egg-laying mammal, the only surviving relative of the platypus. There are lots of weird things about this creature, but one of the weirdest is that they don’t have a permanent pouch to stash their eggs in—they create a temporary pouch by contracting their abdominal muscles. (Both males and females can do it, so determining gender is difficult!) KI has its own subspecies—T. a. multiaculeatus—which basically means “fast tongue, very spiny!” They have a 9-inch tongue that can flick in and out 100 times in a minute, scooping up insects and larvae.

4. Black Swans

Black Swans live across the southern regions of Australia, moving nomadically between salt and freshwater wetlands. Preferring areas where eating and nesting materials are plentiful, they can also be seen in the spring in flooded pastures, like this one.

5. Sheep

Wool export has long been an integral part of the local economy; there are 400,000 sheep on the island today. This flock lives at the Stranraer Homestead, a functioning sheep station and utterly serene bed and breakfast, where lots of delicious sheep-derived haloumi cheese finds its way into the homecooked meals.

6. New Zealand Fur Seals

Despite its name, the New Zealand fur seal is a native of southern Australia. At a stunning rock formation called Admirals Arch in Flinders Chase National Park, you can find hundreds of them resting between fishing trips.

7. Australian Sea Lions

Found only on the south and west coasts of Australia, the Australian sea lion is recovering from threatened status. Females will spend up to three days swimming out to sea and feeding before returning to the beach where their pups await feeding time. Then they catch up on their rest!

8. Australian Pelican

The Australian Pelican is a medium-sized pelican, but it boasts the largest bill of any bird—the longest on record was 20 inches.

9. Tammar wallabies

The smallest of the wallabies, the rabbit-sized gray tammar can drink sea water!

10. Ligurian Bees

In the 1880s, Kangaroo Island settlers imported a dozen hives of of honey bees from Liguria, in northern Italy, to help with crop pollination and honey production. The forward-thinking beekeepers at the time had the foresight to have KI declared a bee sanctuary—limiting the import of other bee varieties—which today makes it the home of one of the only pure strains of bees anywhere in the world.

11. Koalas, of course!

The problem for koalas has never been underpopulation—in fact, the opposite has threatened this introduced species' survival on the island. Overpopulation once meant that a sadly common sight was a starving koala in a stripped-bare tree. In recent years, sterilization programs have helped get populations back to sustainable levels, so this is now a good place to spot a (well-fed) one in the wild.

All images courtesy of Jessanne Collins.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES