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Erin McCarthy

New App Makes Identifying Bird Species Easy

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Erin McCarthy

Last October, I was petsitting for a friend and, while out for a walk with the pup, came across a strange looking bird (above). It was sitting, shell shocked, on the hood of a car in Brooklyn. When it was still there an hour later, I decided I would take it and release it in a nearby park—but how do you rescue a bird if you don't even know what kind it is?

No one on Twitter or Instagram could help; a friend who is a birder guessed that it might be a woodcock. So, after reading how to best rescue those birds, I gently wrapped the bird in a towel, slipped it into a paper bag, and walked it down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I let it out in some vegetation. It ran away from me, flying in short bursts, as fast as it could.

If only I'd had Birdsnap. This electronic field guide, created by computer scientists at Columbia University and the University of Maryland, can identify 500 common North American birds with nothing but a cell phone photo. The process is simple: Take a photo or choose one from your phone's album; click on the eye and the tail; and wait for the potential matches to show up.

After I'd set the bird loose in the park, my birder friend texted again: another birder believed the bird was a juvenile Virginia Rail, a freshwater marsh bird that mostly keeps to itself. Birdsnap identified the bird correctly on the first try. (How it got on the hood of a car in Brooklyn will forever remain a mystery.)

Columbia Computer Science Professor Peter Belhumeur and University of Maryland Computer Science Professor David Jacobs came up with the idea for the app when they realized that the software and techniques they'd developed for facial recognition could also be used to identify species. Facial recognition algorithms work by finding the resemblance between comparable parts of faces, comparing a nose to other noses and an eye to other eyes, according to Columbia's Engineering Department. In Birdsnap, each species has 17 parts marked; the app detects the parts of the bird so it can compare them with what's in its database and discover species that are visually similar to the animal in an uploaded photo.

"What's really exciting about Birdsnap is that not only does it do well at identifying species, but it can also identify which parts of the bird the algorithm uses to identify each species," said Thomas Berg, a Columbia Engineering computer science PhD candidate. "Birdsnap then automatically annotates images of the bird to show these distinctive parts—birders call them 'field marks'—so the user can learn what to look for.”

And the app, available for the iPhone, does more than just identify birds: It also provides descriptions of the animals and their calls, shows their family trees and similar species, and includes range and sightings maps.

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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