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6 Things to Know About the Super Cute Quokka

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We’ve all seen the photos that made the rounds last year: a furry little critter beams at the camera, at a leaf, at a tourist. From this adorable gallery—which naturally went viral—we can discern two facts: 1) that the furry little critter is called a “quokka”; and 2) that this quokka, whatever that is, must be the world’s happiest animal. It even says so, right there in the photo gallery.

But life is rarely so simple. It may be known for its sweetness, but the quokka has a salty side. What is a quokka, anyway? How do you pronounce its name? And are they really that happy-go-lucky? Read on for a reality check, and the sobering truth behind that smile.

1. Meet the Quokkas

Quokkas are nocturnal marsupials. They’re some of the smallest members of the macropod (or “big foot”) family, which also includes kangaroos and wallabies. The quokka clan makes its home in swamps and scrublands, tunneling through the brush to create shelters and hideouts and emerging at night to find food.

They’re the only land mammal on Rottnest Island, and have become something of a tourist attraction. Quokkas were first described by Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh, who reported finding “a kind of rat as big as a cat.” The squeamish seaman named the quokkas’ island Ratte nest (“rat’s nest”), then sailed away, presumably toward more genteel wildlife.

As for pronunciation, dictionaries offer two options. North Americans usually pronounce it kwo-ka (rhymes with “mocha”), and everyone else says kwah-ka (rhymes with “wokka wokka”). It’s really up to you. Quokkas don’t care.

2. The Quokka Will Cut You

The “world’s happiest animal” is not all sunshine and lollipops. You may not want to hear this, but it’s true. A quokka’s big feet are tipped with very sharp claws. Like much of Australia’s wildlife, the quokka will f*** you up if you give it the opportunity.

Journalist Kenneth Cook learned the hard way when he tried to befriend a quokka along a dirt road. Cook noted the animal’s “small, mean mouth,” but decided it was probably too small to do much damage. “It was a malicious-looking beast,” he wrote in his 1987 book Wombat Revenge, but he wasn’t afraid. He offered the little animal a piece of apple, which the quokka spat out, and a crumb of gorgonzola cheese. The quokka popped the gorgonzola into its mouth, chewed, and then, Cook says, “fell down in a dead faint.” 

Convinced he’d just poisoned the creature and determined to save it, Cook zipped the quokka’s body into his backpack, left a little room for air, swung the pack onto his back, and pedaled his bicycle frantically down the road to find help. After a few minutes of bumping along at breakneck speed, the quokka began to revive, and blearily climbed out of the backpack, claws first. 

Afraid to turn around in case he lost control of his bike, Cook sped onward. The quokka grabbed his neck and began shrieking in his ear. The bike kept going. The shrieking quokka sank its teeth into Cook’s earlobe and hung there, dead weight, like a large, furry earring. Disoriented, the journalist steered his bike off a cliff into the ocean. Surfacing, he looked around and found the quokka standing on the shore, glaring at him and snarling.  

The story seems incredible, but Cook is far from the winsome creature’s only victim. Teddy-bear ears and doe eyes aside, these animals are ready, willing, and able to fend for themselves. Each year, the Rottnest Island infirmary treats dozens of patients—mostly children—for quokka bites

Among themselves, quokkas are primarily a peaceful bunch. Males don’t fight over choice females, food, or water, although they will occasionally scrap over a nice, shady napping spot. 

3. The Quokka Is Using You

Inquisitive, appealing, and fearless, quokkas have adapted to human presence in their environment in admirable fashion. Campsites and condos are all fair game for hungry quokkas, who have become notorious for raiding local homes in search of late-night snacks. Quokka settlements have sprung up around youth hostels and tourist sites—places, in other words, where the canny animals are assured of an easy meal. Cognitive science researchers like Arizona State University’s Clive Wynne have turned the tables on the quokkas by setting up shop in these same sites, knowing the wild animals will play nice. 

On Rottnest Island, the inquisitive critters have made themselves something of a nuisance for business owners. “They wander down the streets and into cafes and restaurants,” Senior Constable Michael Wear told the Daily Telegraph.

They’re not just after our food, though—we also make good entertainment. While tracking a female quokka named Imelda through the brush at night, Bangor University conservationist Matt Hayward realized he was being followed. “I heard footsteps approaching,” he told National Wildlife. Each time Hayward turned off his tracking equipment, the footsteps ceased. Just as his terror reached its peak, he said, “a little head poked out from behind a bush.” His stalker? Imelda.

4. The Quokka Is Kind of a Badass

Think of the quokka as the panda’s polar opposite. Where the panda seems determined to erase its own species from the face of the Earth, the quokka is a gritty survivor, ready to do anything it takes to stick around. 

For example: pandas spend between ten and sixteen hours each day foraging and eating. Why? Because bamboo—which makes up 99 percent of their diet—has almost no nutritional content. Quokkas, on the other hand, divide their time between eating leaves and grasses and snoozing in the shade. When water is scarce, quokkas chow down on water-storing succulents. When the good leaves are hard to reach, they climb trees. The quokka does not settle for useless food.

Both pandas and quokkas are prone to offing their own offspring, but there’s a crucial difference: intention (or lack thereof, in the panda’s case). When pursued by a predator, a fleeing quokka mum will eject her baby from her pouch. Thusly launched, Baby Q flails about on the ground, making weird hissing noises and attracting the predator’s attention while Mama Quokka escapes to live another day. She can, and will, reproduce again. It’s a stone-cold strategy, but it works. 

Panda cubs, those rare and precious million-dollar babies, have been killed when their own mothers accidentally sat on them.

5. No, You Can’t Have One.

Sorry. Wild quokka populations are declining as invasive predators like foxes and cats move into quokka territory. They need to stay in the wild. You can’t have one.

And don’t try to smuggle them, or snuggle them, either: Rottnest Island authorities will slap a $300 fine on anyone caught touching a quokka. Whether the fine is intended to protect the quokkas or their would-be human scratching posts is unclear.

6. So Why Is the Quokka Smiling?

It’s fierce, fearless, and totes adorbs, but is it happy?

Nobody knows. Clive Wynne’s cognitive experiments disproved the long-held assumption that quokkas were “really, really dumb”—an assumption, he said, he found even in scientific literature. The smiley little guys don’t “have any magical cognitive abilities,” he says, “but they’re not stupid. They have the skills they need—honed by evolution over millions of years—to thrive in their natural environment.”

So why are they smiling? Consider Bitchy Resting Face, a condition suffered by several Hollywood A-listers. Consider the great white shark, with its face permanently stretched into a dopey grin. The quokka’s Mona Lisa smile, says Clive Wynne, is “an accident of evolution.” 

He’s the expert, so we’ll take him at his word. But if we were tenacious, tiny furballs with anime-cute faces and vicious claws, we’d be smiling too. 

All images courtesy of Thinkstock.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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