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10 Ways to See the Dinosaur in a Bird

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Forget everything you’ve heard about dinosaurs dying out 66 million years ago. That’s not true. 

Even though the era of dinosaurian dominance came to a catastrophic end—punctuated by climate change, massive volcanic outpouring, and an asteroid strike—one lineage of the “terrible lizards” survived while all the others perished.

Birds, after over 84 million years of coexistence alongside their weird and wonderful relatives, persisted through the devastation and thrived in the aftermath, proliferating into over 10,000 species alive today. Every avian—from penguin to pigeon—are dinosaurs that carry on the legacy of their Mesozoic forerunners, and here’s a list of ten traits that will help you see the dinosaur alive in every bird.

1. The Cloaca

Let’s get this one out of the way. Given the organ’s presence in birds (living dinosaurs) and crocodylians (the closest living cousins of all dinosaurs), paleontologists know that all non-avian dinosaurs had a cloaca. This orifice is the single spot where the excretory, urinary, and reproductive tracts end. More than that, paleontologists expect that male dinosaurs had an “intromittent organ” to assist in their nuptials, just as ducks and ostriches do. 

2. Eggs

The way dinosaurs reproduce solves the “chicken and the egg” puzzle. Just like birds, all non-avian dinosaurs—from Albertosaurus to Zalmoxes—started life by hatching out of eggs. The eggs were relatively small compared to their parents. Giants such as the 110-foot-long, 45 ton Supersaurus emerged from eggs no bigger than a soccer ball.

3. Parental Care

Some dinosaur parents were as attentive as modern birds. Multiple specimens of the parrot-like Citipati, for example, have been found brooding over their eggs just the way expectant avians do today, and the anatomy of baby Maiasaura hint that they waited for their shovel-beaked parents to bring them food. Likewise, a find of the small herbivorous dinosaur Oryctodromeus revealed an adult and two juvenile dinosaurs hunkered down in the same burrow, a sign that the teenagers hadn’t yet left home.

4. Feathers

Baby birds share another connection with their extinct relatives: Paleontologists have found dozens of dinosaurs preserved with fluff that would have made them look like chicks with teeth and claws. And that’s not to mention dinosaurs, such as Velociraptor, that sported even more advanced plumage. Feathers were not an evolutionary innovation unique to birds—feathers and their precursors were a widespread dinosaur feature that evolved for insulation and display before being co-opted for flight.

5. Colors

Fossil feathers preserve microscopic structures called melanosomes. The size, density, and arrangement of these structures create colors that can be reconstructed. As it turns out, the little raptor Anchiornis was patterned black and white with a splash of red—like a flashy magpie—and the quad-winged Microraptor had a raven’s iridescent sheen. Paleontologists may eventually find even more gaudy dinosaurs, but the feathered dinosaurs studied so far would have looked strangely familiar.

6. Air sacs

Naturalists used to think that birds were unique in having a series of air sacs spreading from their respiratory system. These made their skeletons lighter and made birds more efficient breathers. But, hipsters that they were, non-avian dinosaurs were into air sacs first. The long-necked sauropods—think Apatosaurus—and theropods like Tyrannosaurus benefitted from these billowy organs, and these “pneumatic structures” may be part of the secret as to how dinosaurs got to be so huge.

7. Feet

In the early 19th century, a New England naturalist named Edward Hitchcock thought he had found the fossilized tracks of giant birds. He wasn’t that far off. The three-toed tracks were left by non-avian dinosaurs during around 190 million years ago, and even as birds evolved they kept the scaly, three-toed feet of their ancestors. The next time you see a quail or sparrow, look at their feet and tell me there's not something Allosaurus-like about them.

8. Wings

The next time you tear through Buffalo wings, take a look at the bones. The fused fingers and hands folded against those arm bones aren’t all that different from the clawed arms of Deinonychus and similar dinosaurs. And rather than facing the ground, these hands faced palms inward. The lesson is simple—the next time you do a Velociraptor impression, fold your arms like a chicken and snarl.

9. Wishbone

If you ever got the chance to carve up a Tyrannosaurus, you’d find a very familiar bone underneath the dinosaur’s breast meat. Like many other theropod dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus had a V-shaped wishbone. In paleontological circles, though, breaking a fossil wishbone is not considered good luck.

10. Teeth

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Birds didn’t always have beaks. The earliest avians retained the teeth of their raptor-like ancestors, and even today birds retain the genetic remnants of a sharp bite. It’s just a matter of giving them the proper genetic cues to express teeth anew. This will either make Jurassic Park a reality or give KFC a “dinochicken” gimmick.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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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