Original image

10 Toothy Facts About Iguanodon

Original image

Perhaps more than any other dinosaur, Iguanodon reveals how dramatically our perception of these amazing creatures has evolved—while reminding us how much we’ve yet to learn.  

1. It’s Got One of the World’s Oldest Dinosaur Names.

Our story begins with an eccentric English doctor. The year was 1825. Sussex’s Gideon Mantell had recently obtained a fossilized tooth, one which looked rather strange. Convinced that his specimen belonged to some huge, plant-eating reptile, the physician named it “Iguanodon,” meaning “iguana tooth.” Seventeen years later, anatomist Richard Owen coined the word “Dinosaur”—or “fearfully great reptile”—to classify a trio of newly-unearthed prehistoric creatures: Hylaeosaurus, Megalosaurus, and Mantell’s Iguanodon.

2. The Original Iguanodon Specimen May Have Actually Belonged to Another Dino.

Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Iguanodon genus only contains a single species: Europe’s handsome Iguanodon bernissartensis (pictured above). Nice and simple, right? Well, way back in the 20th century, over a dozen vastly different-looking dinos—spread out across four continents—were lumped together as members of the Iguanodon genus. From a classification standpoint, this was hardly helpful, so scientists started divvying them up during the early 2000s. 

Brand new titles such as Mantellisaurus and Dollodon were given to former Iguanodon species. After the dust eventually settled, none but I. bernissartensis remained unaltered [PDF]. Thickening this plot still further, Mantell’s tooth—the fossil that started it all—might also deserve to be placed in a separate genus.

3.  Iguanodon’s Famous “Thumb Spikes” Were Originally Mistaken for Nasal Horns.

Wikimedia Commons

At first, this long-extinct beast was only known from assorted bits and pieces. Iguanodonsnouts, therefore, seemed like as good a place as any for paleontologists to put their conical spikes. When more complete remains started turning up in the 1870s, it was realized that they actually belonged on the sides of their hands.

4. By the Way, Scientists Still Aren’t Entirely Sure What Those Spikes Were Used For.

Wikimedia Commons

Iguanodon is often drawn using its thumbs as powerful weapons, heroically jabbing these clawed digits into careless carnivores. But they could have also been employed to tackle less-dramatic errands like breaking open nuts or stripping tree bark. After all, though feeding may lack the glamour of combat, both tasks can force evolution to get inventive.

5. In 1878, a Belgian Mine Yielded Oodles of Game-Changing Iguanodon Skeletons.

Getty Images

That year, two miners unwittingly stumbled on a prehistoric treasure trove over 1000 feet beneath Bernissart, Belgium. Among the fossils their site yielded were 14 beautifully-preserved Iguanodon skeletons, which finally helped paleontologists understand what this majestic animal looked like.

6. Iguanodon Apparently Preferred Four Legs to Two.

Wikimedia Commons

With such robust torsos and long, powerful arms, chances are adult Iguanodon bernissartensis didn’t spend too much time walking about on their hind limbs; instead, using all fours served as the standard method of transportation. Nevertheless, when life called for a brief two-legged stroll, these animals could have doubtlessly risen to the occasion.

7. Iguanodon Has Had a Sizable Literary Impact.

The Lost World, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 epic adventure story, involves herds of Iguanodon roaming the South American wilderness. One comically-oversized specimen trudges through Paris in Nicolas Flammarion’s The World Before Man (1886). And then there’s Raptor Red (1995)—written by maverick paleontologist Robert Bakker—which features a botched Utahraptor attack triggering an Iguanodon stampede.

8. There’s A Still-Orbiting Asteroid Called 9941 Iguanodon.

Wikimedia Commons

On February 4, 1989, a new asteroid was found inside the rocky belt between Mars and Jupiter. In a move that might sound like naming an iceberg after the Titanic (at least, if some popular extinction hypotheses turn out to be correct), NASA subsequently gave it this dinosaurian title.

9. It’s On an English Coat of Arms.


In 1834, Mantell received some congregated Iguanodon bones that turned up near the town of Maidstone, which has since honored its paleontological heritage by adding the dino to its official coat of arms.

10. A Super-Cool New Year’s Eve Party Was Once Thrown Inside an Iguanodon Sculpture.

Wikimedia Commons

As 1854 approached, London’s Crystal Palace saw what was arguably history’s strangest New Year’s Eve celebration. Sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had been commissioned to build a menagerie of full-sized prehistoric creature statues which still captivate visitors today.

Hoping to promote this Victorian Jurassic Park, Hawkins hosted a dinner party in the belly of a partially-completed Iguanodon. On the guest list were 20 great academic figures, including the aforementioned Owen. Ham was served, wine was imbibed, and soon, a cheerful chant rang out: “The Jolly Old Beast is Not Deceased, There’s Life in Him Again!”

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image

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]