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The Shark Whisperer and Other Animal Whisperers

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The 1998 movie The Horse Whisperer brought the word “whisperer” to public consciousness, meaning a person who has an extraordinary ability to relate to and communicate with animals. Such a person is considered just one rung below Dr. Doolittle. No matter how it’s done, the term “whisperer” conveys the seemingly magical abilities of these folks to get into an animal's head. And quite a few animal experts have been graced with the title, although many deal with animals the rest of us don’t want to.

1. Ned Bruha, the Skunk Whisperer

Photograph from Facebook.

Ned Bruha is known as the Skunk Whisperer. In fact, that’s the name of the TV show in which he stars, and his wildlife control business (formerly Bruha’s Nuisance Wildlife Control, Inc.) in Oklahoma. Bruha grew up among forest creatures, and developed control techniques as a boy when he learned how to keep chipmunks from disturbing gravesites. By studying ecosystems, he learned the value of proper wildlife relocation instead of extermination. Bruha’s business focuses on changing the environment to make it less attractive to wildlife, instead of having to constantly trap and relocate animals. And it isn’t just skunks; Bruha will relocate squirrels, raccoons, opossums, geese, foxes, coyotes, and other creatures. His Facebook page is dedicated to education about wildlife and support for wildlife rehabilitation centers and conservation programs.

2. Kevin Richardson, the Lion Whisperer

Kevin Richardson is called the Lion Whisperer because of his uncanny ability to relate to South Africa’s wildlife, especially lions. When you first encounter Richardson in a video, you almost believe he is going to be eaten at any moment. When he began working at a safari park 16 years ago, he rebelled against the established rules of dealing with predators with an iron fist. Instead, he learns each individual animal’s personality, and responds in a way the beast will relate to. With lions, he became part of their family, which inspired the title of his book Part of the Pride. Richardson works with conservation organizations to benefit the animals, and also as a consultant and animal handler for movies and TV.

3. Spikehorn Meyers, the Bear Whisperer

Photograph from Flickr user Don...The UpNorth Memories Guy... Harrison.

John “Spikehorn” Meyers opened a "Bear and Deer Park" on his property in Harrison, Michigan around 1930. According to Don Harrison, Spikehorn was a character and a jack of all trades who wove colorful tales of frontier life for tourists who would visit his park. There are plenty of pictures of Spikehorn, as he sold postcards of himself interacting with the bears. See a video of Spikehorn in action (in color). He was not known during his life as a bear whisperer, because that term had not come into use before he died in 1959, but he was called “The Bear Man of Michigan.”

4. RC Bridges, the Buffalo Whisperer

Screenshot from BBC One.

RC Bridges of Quinlan, Texas, grew up doing rodeo stunts, and also worked as a wildlife ranger and a farrier. In 2005, he took in an orphan baby buffalo he named Wildthing. Wildthing was treated like any member of the family, coming and going in the house like a human. As Wildthing grew, he was given a room of his own. Bridges taught his buffalo to dance, to pull a cart, and even to ride in his car. In 2012, he took in another buffalo named Bullet. See more pictures of Bridges and his buffalo

5. The Pig Whisperer

Dutch veterinarian Dr. Kees Scheepens is a consultant to pig farmers in Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries. He has earned the nickname The Pig Whisperer for his holistic approach to understanding pigs. Scheepens’ business Pig Signals aims to educate farmers on how to monitor their pigs’ needs and manage their care and health to the best of their ability. Here, you can see Scheepens de-stressing a piglet to the point that the animal appears to be hypnotized.

6. The Horse Whisperers

The Horse Whisperer is a book and movie about natural horsemanship. “Natural horsemanship” is a term used to describe techniques that train a horse for human use by befriending the animal and understanding and using the horse’s natural tendencies to shape a rapport with humans. It’s a departure from the traditional methods of breaking and coercing a horse. Although the style has been used here and there throughout history, two of the earliest modern proponents of the technique as it used today were brothers Tom Dorrance and Bill Dorrance, who passed their technique on to others.

Ray Hunt was a student of Tom Dorrance, and held clinics to teach natural horsemanship techniques to horse owners and trainers across the United States. He also distributed videos and books about horse training.

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One of Ray Hunt’s students was Buck Brannaman (shown above). Brannaman was the trainer who was the inspiration for the title character in Nicholas Evans’ book The Horse Whisperer, which was the basis for the movie. He also served as a consultant on the film.

7. Honza Bláha, the Czech Horse Whisperer

Honza Bláha is known as the Czech horse whisperer. He holds clinics to teach his techniques in his hometown of Srbice, Czech Republic. In this video, you can see how he gets horses to dance, ride in formation, and “act” without saddles or bridles. He has a rider’s crop, but we don’t see him use it for anything besides pointing. According to Bláha’s biography, horse training must be individually designed for each horse, because they all have different personalities.

8. Andre "The Shark Whisperer" Hartman

South African diver Andre Hartman is known as The Shark Whisperer. Hartman and a friend opened a business called Marine Dynamics to take tourists underwater in cages to observe great white sharks in action.

Then one day, he discovered the secret 'whisper' that has made him world famous. Often while they were out diving, the Great Whites would out of curiosity try and take a bite off the boat's motor. Concerned that they would harm it, he pushed one off by touching the tip of its snout. To his surprise, the big fish lunged up and then fell backwards, like it was in a happy trance!

What he had accidently done is touch the Ampullae of Lorenzini, the electronic receptors found in the snouts of cartilaginous fish like sharks and rays. They are so sensitive that just a mere touch creates a rush of information and puts the fish into a temporary sensor overload - The shark is so overwhelmed by this experience that for a few moments, it goes into a trance.

Hartman became so used to being around sharks that he would sometimes even swim among them and grab a fin to be pulled along. His foot was bitten by a shark in 2004, but he has fully recovered and went right back to the shark diving business.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]

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