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Sarah Knutie, University of Utah

Galapagos Birds Beat Bloodsuckers with Pesticide-Lined Homes

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Sarah Knutie, University of Utah

In the 1990s, the fly Philornis downsi was accidentally introduced to the Galapagos Islands, probably in a shipment of fruit. The adult flies are harmless enough as invaders go, but their kids are a real problem for the islands’ native birds, some of which are found nowhere else in the world and a few of which are endangered.

The flies lay their eggs in birds’ nests just as the chicks are emerging from their own eggs, and once the larvae hatch, they begin to eat their hosts from both inside and out. No larger than grains of rice, the maggots wriggle their way into the baby birds’ nostrils and eat away at their nasal cavities. As they get larger, the parasites burst back out and continue to live in the nest, hiding by day and emerging each night to suck blood from the chicks. This is often too much for the birds to bear. In some years, the parasites have killed every single chick in a given area and caused every nest to fail. Even if the birds survive, they often have difficulty eating because their beaks are deformed from the larvae that crawled around inside.

Among the birds that the flies maim and kill are Darwin’s finches, a group of 15 related species whose beaks diverged in form as adaptations to their function and were a key piece of evidence for Charles Darwin when he was developing his idea of evolution by natural selection. And even though they’re textbook examples of adaptation, the birds haven’t adapted to the parasites yet because they don’t have a long evolutionary history with them. For now, it falls to scientists to protect them. Conservation biologists have tried treating the nests with insecticides, which increases the number of chicks that survive long enough to fly on their own, and also removing chicks of the most vulnerable species from their nests and raising them in incubators.

Neither of these strategies is inexpensive or easy. Treating the nests is particularly tricky because they’re often hard to find or placed too high in the trees to reach. Now a team of biologists thinks they’ve found a new, more efficient way to do it: lend the birds the insecticides and let them be their own exterminators.

The idea came to University of Utah doctoral student Sarah Knutie as she watched finches come to the laundry lines outside her island dorm and pull threads from clothes and towels to add to their nests. She wondered if the birds would also take fibers that had been treated with permethrin—an insecticide often used in flea collars and lice shampoos—and work them into the nests to “self-fumigate” them.

To find out, Knutie, other students and their advisor Dale Clayton fashioned 30 dispensers out of wire mesh, filled them with either permethrin- or water-soaked cotton, and placed them along a road near nesting sites on Santa Cruz Island.

When the breeding season was over and the baby birds left home, the researchers collected and dissected 26 empty nests built by four different finch species. Twenty-two of the nests contained cotton from the dispensers, and more than half of those contained the insecticide-laced cotton.

The birds were apparently happy to take the dosed cotton, and it paid off for them. The nests with the permethrin cotton in them contained about half as many parasites as the ones that had plain cotton or no cotton at all, and all but one of the nests with a least of a gram of treated cotton—about a thimble's worth—were parasite-free. 

If more cotton dispensers can be installed and maintained, they could make a huge difference for some of the islands’ birds. One of Darwin’s finches, the mangrove finch, has a population of less than 100 birds confined to about a square kilometer of land. It would only take 60 dispensers, Knutie says, to protect the whole population from the flies.

The researchers hope that the same method could be used to protect other birds and nest-building animals against parasites and pests, from Hawaiian honeycreepers dealing with feather lice to prairie dogs that are literally plagued by Yersinia pestis-carrying fleas. Just a little puff of cotton could go a long way in helping these animals help themselves. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”