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9 Extinct Big Birds

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Our friend from Sesame Street may be a big bird, but he’s tiny compared to some real birds that have roamed the earth in the past. Here are a representative few of these big birds we will never see alive again. In some cases, that’s a comforting thought.

1. Gastornis

There were four or five species of the bird genus Gastornis that lived in North America, Europe, and Asia 55 to 40 million years ago. The North American bird was previously known as Diatryma before it was reclassified. Gastornis were big flightless birds, the largest species being Gastornis giganteus, which grew to 6.5 feet tall. But they weren’t anything to be afraid of -unless you were a plant. Its powerful beak was used to crush seeds and fruit. That’s right, this bird was a vegetarian! However, it could well have used that beak as a defense against attackers. The top picture is a 1917 illustration of what Gastornis may have looked like.

2. Pelagornis Chilensis

Just a few years ago, it was thought that Pelagornis chilensis had the largest wingspan possible for a bird at 17 feet. P. chilensis lived in Chile 5 to 10 million years ago, where it skimmed the ocean surface for fish. That large wingspan was necessary to carry a 64-pound flying body. It is classified as a pelagornithid, or bony-toothed (“pseudotooth”) bird. Some other species of pelagornithids may have survived long enough to have been seen by humans.

3. Pelagornis Sandersi

The idea that 17 feet was the upper wingspan limit for flying birds was shattered in 2014. Pelagornis sandersi is largest flying bird yet found, with a wingspan of up to 24 feet! The fossil was found in Charleston, South Carolina in 1983, but it was kept in storage for thirty years before anyone studied its measurements. And now that we know how big this pseudotooth was, the mystery that remains is how it ever achieved liftoff with such long wings. It’s possible that the bird jumped off seaside cliffs.

4. Andalgalornis

Andalgalornis steulleti was a Phorusrhacid that stood 4.5 feet tall and weighed about 90 pounds. Phorusrhacids, the 18 species of the family Phorusrhacidae, are commonly called “terror birds,” because they were huge apex predators during the Cenozoic era. Andalgalornis lived in Argentina around 6 million years ago. Its skull was distinctively thin as seen from above, but its narrow beak appears huge from the side. Andalgalornis had a rigid-boned skull that gave it a powerful bite compared to other birds with more lightweight construction.

5. Kelenken

The largest terror bird was Kelenken guillermoi, which lived 15 million years ago in Argentina. Kelenken stood somewhere between seven and ten feet tall. Its lower leg bone is 45 centimeters (18 inches), and it had a skull 71 centimeters (28 inches) long with a 45 centimeter beak. This flightless bird weighed around 500 pounds and killed its prey with its massive beak.

6. Titanis Walleri

The terror bird Titanis walleri became an American Phorusrhacid as a result of species moving over the Isthmus of Panama about three million years ago. Its fossils have been found in Texas and Florida. T. walleri lived from 5 to 2 million years ago. This bird stood eight feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds. The species, in a fictionalized form, stars in the 2006 novel The Flock by James Robert Smith.

7. Haast’s Eagle

Haast’s eagle is extinct, but not exactly prehistoric. Scientists believe the youngest fossils may be only 500 years old, which means the eagle’s extinction was probably due to human hunting of the eagle’s main prey, the moa. Haast’s eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was native to New Zealand, and was the largest eagle that ever lived. The female, larger than the male, weighed 10–15 kilograms (22–33 pounds) and had a wingspan of 8-10 feet. The species had a relatively short wingspan for its weight.

8. Dinornis

Speaking of New Zealand, it was once home to an extinct bird genus that actually resembled Sesame Street’s Big Bird. Dinornis, or the giant moa, was the main food source of Haast’s eagle until it was hunted to extinction by the Māori in the 15th century. The female of the species Dinornis robustus stood 12 feet tall and weighed over 500 pounds, possibly up to 600 pounds! New Zealand had no mammals before human settlers arrived from Polynesia, and so they thrived for 40,000 years, despite Haast’s eagle.

9. Argentavis

With an estimated wingspan of 23 feet, Argentavis magnificens is the only extinct bird found so far that can approach Pelagornis sandersi in wingspan. And we have more fossil specimens of the “magnificent bird of Argentina.” It existed more recently than many of the birds on this list, living around six million years ago. A. magnificens weighed between 60 and 80 kg (140-180 pounds), so it is a mystery how it managed to take off, but it is inferred that the bird soared on thermal currents instead of flapping its wings. Argentavis ate carrion instead of swooping down on live prey. A. magnificens is related to modern vultures.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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