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10 Things You Might Not Know About Allosaurus

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Forget those sluggish tail-draggers you’ve seen plodding through old cartoons—in the real world, many dinosaurs lived fast and died young. Meet Allosaurus, a fearsome hunter with a knack for war wounds.

1. It’s the State Fossil of Utah.

Wikimedia Commons

Allosaurus earned this honor in 1988, just five years before a brand new dino was literally named “Utahraptor.”

2. Allosaurus Ate Like a Falcon.

Wikimedia Commons

A team helmed by Ohio paleontologist Eric Snivley recently proposed that—thanks to its specialized neck muscles—“Allosaurus was uniquely adapted to drive its head down into prey, hold it there, and then pull the head straight up and back with the neck and body, tearing flesh from the carcass.” Today’s birds of prey use the same approach when picking apart their victims.

3. Calvin and Hobbes Featured the Occasional Allosaurus.

Calvin (like Bill Watterson himself) loved dinosaurs and pretended to be a ravenous Allosaurus every so often, usually just before pouncing on an unsuspecting adult.

4. Allosaurus Was Ridiculously Accident-Prone…

Big Al, via Wikimedia Commons

Active lifestyles, like the one this predator led, have their drawbacks, and battered Allosaurus remains are common. For example, before it died, one Wyoming specimen (nicknamed “Big Al”) received several broken vertebrae, cracked ribs, a damaged tail, a mangled arm, and a gruesome infection on its right foot. Ouch.

Adding insult to these injuries, x-ray analyst Bruce Rothschild believes that some skeletons “show exactly the pattern of fractures that would be caused by a belly flop onto hard ground while running.” Here’s a totally scientific gif that’ll give you the basic idea.


5. … But At Least it Healed Easily.

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Designed to quickly recover when damaged, Allosaurus bones were resilient, according to a detailed biochemical analysis conducted at the University of Manchester. “Using synchrotron imaging, we were able to detect astoundingly dilute traces of chemical signatures that reveal not only the difference between normal and healed bone, but also how the damaged bone healed,” said Dr. Phil Manning, senior author of the paper. “It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defense mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries.”

6. Allosaurus May Have Excelled at Ripping the Flesh off of Live Prey.

“Flesh-Grazer” sounds like the ring name of a second-rate wrestler, but the term’s been used to describe Allosaurus’ possible dining habits. With hooked claws and slicing teeth, some have speculated that this Jurassic marauder would have run alongside one of the gigantic herbivores that shared its habitat, ripped off a tasty chunk of its hide, and fled to a safe location before the target could retaliate.

7. Allosaurus Snapped at Each Other from Time to Time.

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As if living with the spike-tailed Stegosaurus wasn’t dangerous enough, many Allosaurus skulls have been found with deep bite wounds left by other members of their own species [PDF].

8. Allosaurus Was A Little Hard of Hearing.

Wikimedia Commons

The creature’s inner ear was built like a present-day crocodile’s, so, like modern crocs, it probably had difficulty picking up high-frequency noises [PDF].

9. It’s Part of (Arguably) the World’s Most Spectacular Dinosaur Display.

Wikimedia Commons

If there’s a fossil-lover’s Mecca, it’s the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Step into the Roosevelt Rotunda, and you’ll find yourself staring slack-jawed at a gripping prehistoric drama. Our players include the mounted replica of an Allosaurus skeleton charging towards a helpless young Barosaurus. Only one thing stands in this killer’s way: its would-be victim’s 80-foot mother angrily rearing up on her massive hindquarters.

10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Once Used Fake Allosaurus Footage to Prank Harry Houdini.

The Lost World (1925) is a groundbreaking special effects extravaganza based on Doyle’s novel of the same name. Allosaurus—brought to life with cutting-edge stop motion animation—stars as the picture’s chief antagonist. Before the movie was released, an early test reel came into the Sherlock Holmes author’s possession. What followed was a truly epic prank.

Doyle, who believed in the supernatural, was close friends with Harry Houdini, who believed in debunking the supernatural. At a small gathering of magicians, Doyle rose before Houdini and their companions, claiming that he’d traveled back in time via a special psychic technique. To prove it, he then screened the footage of an impossibly-lifelike Allosaurus cavorting about with other long-extinct animals. Houdini and the assembled magicians didn't know what to make of the footage, and the “handcuff king” wouldn’t find out that he’d been duped until Doyle finally came clean in a letter the next day. "I could not resist the temptation to surprise your associates and guests. I am sure they will forgive me if for a few short hours I had them guessing," Doyle wrote. "And now, Mr. Chairman, confidence begets confidence and I want to know how you got out of that trunk."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]