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Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra

6 Plants That Are Masters of Disguise

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Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra

1. Boquila trifoliolata vine

Researchers are a bit baffled by a vine that acts more like a chameleon than a plant. The Boquila trifoliolata vine, which is found in the rainforests of Chile and Argentina, has the remarkable ability to disguise itself by shapeshifting to mimic its surroundings. As it climbs, it morphs itself into an uncanny imitation of its host plant. It can change its size, shape, color, and even vein pattern to fit in. And “if a single Boquila vine extends across two trees, it can mimic both at the same time,” Ernesto Gianoli, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of La Serena in Chile, told Mental_Floss.

Gianoli and his associate, Fernando Carrasco-Urra from the University of Concepción, discovered the plant’s mimicking abilities. Their findings are detailed in the journal Current Biology. “Perhaps the most amazing evidence was that the study species (Boquila) shows a spiny tip when climbing onto a shrub whose leaves show spiny tips (and only in this case, otherwise Boquila has no spines).” How the vine identifies its host isn’t entirely clear, but researchers say it could be sensing airborne chemicals or even “borrowing and using genes” from hosts. It’s all in the name of staying safe from plant-eating herbivores, they think.

2. Drosera Plants 

Drosera plants, more commonly called Sundews, often grow in soil that lacks nitrogen. But that's not a problem for these carnivorous plants, which get the nutrients they need from bugs lured in by the succulent droplets hanging from the plant’s arms. They’re irresistible for thirsty bugs looking for sweet nectar, but their thirst is their downfall: The dew is in fact a very sticky substance that traps the insect upon contact. The more the bug struggles, the more the plant closes in around it, slowly suffocating it, then devouring it over days.

3. Caladium Steudneriifolium

Wikimedia Commons

We've all faked being sick to avoid a day of school, but for one plant, pretending to be under the weather is a survival tactic. Caladium steudneriifolium, found in a rainforest of Ecuador, is a tasty meal for mining moth caterpillars. These moths lay larvae in the leaves, and when they hatch, the caterpillars eat through the plant, leaving behind white, winding trails known as variegation. Researchers discovered that the plant has learned to deter the moths by purposefully pretending it has already been eaten, and it works. The plants that put on the disguise were far less likely to become a meal.

4. Bee Orchid

Hans Hillewaert

Flowers depend on bees to help spread their pollen. Instead of waiting around hoping a bee will drop by, the aptly named “bee orchid” takes things into its own petals. To lure in male bees, this flower looks (and smell) remarkably like a female bee. The males drop in to say hello, are covered in a layer of pollen, and then buzz off to pollinate the next orchid.

5. Lithops

Lithops, commonly known as “living stones,” are native to the dry climates of southern Africa. To prevent themselves from becoming a meal for thirsty passersby, the plant has evolved to disguise itself by resembling the stones of its surroundings. Its leaves are not green, but grey or brown and covered in odd stone-like patterns. But there’s no hiding these plants once they bloom—their flowers are bright and beautiful.

6. Lamium Album Plant

Coyau via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve ever encountered stinging nettle, you know it’s an unpleasant, painful experience. Its leaves are covered in sharp needle-like hairs that irritate the skin. It seems the Lamium album plant, which goes by the name of white dead-nettle, also knows this, and has learned to mimic stinging nettle to ward off would-be predators. It doesn’t pack the same painful punch as its look-alike, but it benefits from appearing as such.

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.