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10 Frilled Facts About Protoceratops

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Emily Willoughby

Scarcity attracts people. What’s common is often ignored, overshadowed by the exotic and unusual. But sometimes—as this week’s featured dinosaur demonstrates—familiar things can teach us far more than the rarest of the rare. 

1. Protoceratops  Was a Desert Dino.

Seventy million years ago (during the late Cretaceous period), much of central Asia was covered in a vast prehistoric desert inhabited by such reptilian residents as the plant-shearing Protoceratops, the bird-like Shuvuuia, and the sickle-clawed Velociraptor.

2. An Unusual Protoceratops Skeleton May Have Literally Stopped Dead in Its Tracks.  

Fossilized footprints reveal a lot about how extinct creatures behaved, but paleontologists can’t say for certain which species left which track. However, in 2011, one very special footprint was found directly underneath a Protoceratops skeleton, and it’s entirely possible that the two specimens are directly connected.

3. A Nest Full of Adorable Protoceratops Toddlers Has Turned Up.

Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

In November 2011, scientists announced the discovery of a nest containing 15 youngsters. Cooler still is the fact that the wee beasties weren’t newborn hatchlings: They seem to have been growing up a bit before striking out on their own, probably with a little help from their folks. “These animals definitely grew at the nest,” says the University of Rhode Island’s Dr. David Fastovsky, “…the implication is there [was] some kind of parental care involved.” 

4. Protoceratops Was So Common That It’s Been Dubbed “The Sheep of the Cretaceous.”

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The Gobi Desert has yielded hundreds of specimens over the past century, making Protoceratops an unusually well-represented dinosaur. And while we’re on the subject of livestock references, paleontologist Anthony J. Martin once called Protoceratops “Mesozoic Mutton.”

5. It’s Been Argued that Protoceratops Was Built for Tunneling. 

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This might explain the superabundance of Protoceratops bones. After all, a dead animal resting in an underground burrow is much less likely to get picked apart by scavengers or demolished by the elements than an exposed corpse on the surface. So, what’s the evidence? Paleontologist Nicholas Longrich notes that these dinos are often found buried in a strange “upright” position, indicating that they might’ve been standing in cavernous tunnels when they died. 

6. One Protoceratops Species was Named in Honor of a Real-Life Indiana Jones.

Karen

Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) was an explorer who carried a bullwhip, wore a broad-brimmed hat, regularly cheated death, and traveled the world searching for age-old treasures. Heck, the man even hated snakes! Protoceratops andrewsi—a dino discovered on an expedition he spearheaded—was named after him in 1923. 

7. In 1971, a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor Were Found Locked in Combat.

Yuya Tamai

A carnivorous Velociraptor sinks one of its curved toe claws into your neck. What do you do? Well, if you’re a Protoceratops, try chomping down on its arm. The beaked herbivore had some powerful jaws built to slice through sturdy vegetation. As this incredible discovery—unearthed by a Polish-Mongolian crew—demonstrates, they could also help it take a bite out of predators.

How did such an astonishing duel get frozen in time to begin with? One hypothesis claims that the fighters were slugging it out at the base of a waterlogged dune when a sudden mudslide instantly smothered them in fossil-friendly sediment. 

8. Protoceratops “Eye Rings” Have Been Uncovered.

The “sclerotic ring” is a bony circle found within the eyeballs of many vertebrates (including numerous dinosaurs), which helps these sight organs retain their shape. 

9. Protoceratops Noggins Were Fairly Diverse.

Thanks to a wealth of material, scientists have found that some Protoceratops have broader frills and steeper arches above the nose than their neighbors. Do these groups represent the two different sexes? Two different sub-species? Nobody knows.    

10. There’s a Decent Chance that the Griffins of Ancient Folklore were Inspired by Protoceratops.

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In The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, historian Adrienne Mayor suggests that the mythical griffin—rumored to stalk the Gobi—was born when ancient travelers stumbled across Protoceratops remains. Like the legendary monster, she observes, this local dinosaur had four strong legs and a bird-like beak. 

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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