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10 Gigantic Facts About Moose

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istock

For most people, moose are a pretty foreign concept, but for some, they're part of everyday life. Michelle Carstensen, Wildlife Health Program Supervisor at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, gave mental_floss the scoop on these furry giants.

1. Moose are huge.

Moose are the largest members of the deer family, weighing as much as 1200 pounds; they can grow to be 5 to 6.5 feet from hooves to shoulders. This does not include a raised head or antlers, so it's safe to say that the majority of moose tower over all non-basketball players. 

2. They eat a lot.

With huge size comes a huge appetite. Moose are browsers and will casually devour 73 pounds a day in the summer and 34 pounds in the winter. They eat an assortment of shrubs, woody plants, and aquatic vegetation; in the winter, their diet is more restricted, so they eat the buds of plants.

3. Organisms of all sizes pose a threat to moose.

Moose are formidable opponents with sharp hooves that can kick with tremendous force, but even they have predators. A pack of wolves or a black bear is no match for a healthy adult moose, so bears and wolves typically pick off the young, sick, and old. And even though moose are powerful and quite large, a single bite can do one in: There's a good chance the bite will cause an infection that eventually kills the animal up to two weeks later. 

Moose also have a much smaller menace to worry about: parasites. Brain worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) is a parasite contracted from eating snails. The infectious larvae migrate to the moose's brain and cause neurological damage. "It’s interesting thinking of something as big as a human hair killing a 1200 pound moose, but they do," Carstensen says. 

Another tiny nuisance is the winter tick. Tick infestations depend on the weather and habitat: Harsh winters mean less ticks the following year; when ticks fall off animals to complete their cycle and there's still snow on the ground, they die. So hard, long winters are great news for moose. 

4. Their antlers are used for fighting...

When fighting off predators, the antlers, or paddles, don't come into play as much as you would think; a moose's first line of defense is its sharp hooves, which are capable of mortally wounding a wolf or bear.

Paddles are only found on males, and used mainly for fighting and displaying. During mating season in autumn, bulls will cover a lot of ground looking for females to mate with. They establish breeding territory by fighting off other males in the area. The fights are not always fight-to-the-death scenarios, and often a competing moose will back away from a fight if the challenger has a more impressive rack of antlers. Great paddles are not the only way to find mates; some males with better navigational skills—or just sheer luck—may come across a female by chance and completely skip antler combat. 

5. ...and they shed every year.

Moose lose their paddles every winter and grow new ones the following spring. "Antler growth is based on testosterone levels and day length," Carstensen says. "So they start to grow those antlers in the late spring and summer, and they’re covered in velvet. The velvet is vascularized so there is a blood-flow supplying these antlers as they’re growing." By early fall—a.k.a. mating season—bulls start to shed and shine their paddles by rubbing them against trees. Their fuzzy velvet-covered antlers go through a gory transformation, and by October they will have shiny new paddles for competition and display. 

Antlers are also a great indicator of age. With each winter, young moose paddles grow in size: nubs become spikes and spikes become full racks. Bulls in their prime, between ages 5 and 8, have the largest racks. With old age, the antlers become more deformed and less impressive. 

6. Antlers are heavy. 

Just like the moose themselves, antlers can come in different sizes. The paddles are essentially a big bone, so they generally weigh quite a bit; bulls develop muscular necks to help hold up the enormous paddles. A full grown moose's antlers can weigh about 40 pounds. 

7. The babies need help from their mom.

Female moose, or cows, generally have 1 to 2 calves in May. On average, the calves weigh about 30 pounds at birth and grow very quickly. Still, baby moose don't have the ability to run or protect themselves very well, so the mother stays with her offspring for a year and a half, fighting off wolves and bears that try to pick off the young calves.

8. They're great swimmers.

Moose are naturally gifted swimmers. It's common to see one hop right into a lake and swim across at up to 6 mph. The animals have an innate ability to know how to swim, so even calves can swim. 

9. There are four subspecies in North America.

Moose can be categorized into four different species in North America: the eastern moose (A. alces americana), the Shiras moose (A. alces shirasi), the Alaskan moose (A. alces gigas), and the northwestern moose (A. alces andersoni), which Carstensen works with in Minnesota. Moose can be distinguished by different sizes and antler shapes. The largest moose is the Alaskan moose (pictured above) that can stand at 7 feet tall with an antler span of 6 feet. 

10. They're dying at an alarming pace.

Something is happening to all the moose in Minnesota. The state once had a flourishing moose population in the north that was hunted and doing quite well: In the mid-1980s, there were 2000 of the animals in the northwest, but that number dropped to less than 200 in just two decades. This prompted the state to do some research to prevent further drops in population. Unfortunately, the northeast is now facing similiar a problem; the moose population has dropped 50 percent since the mid-2000s. 

Carstensen is leading a $1.2 million moose mortality study to figure out what's killing Minnesota's moose. Her team has collared 150 animals with GPS trackers to keep tabs on them; when a moose dies, an e-mail and text are sent out so the team knows when and where. "The goal is to get there within 24 hours to determine the cause of death," Carstensen says. "[That's important] because moose are a very large animal and they have very thick skin, a very insulating coat, and when they do die, they decompose very rapidly. Being able to get to an animal in 24 hours gives us the best diagnostic level samples that we can collect and help us determine cause of death."

In order to collect that data, they need to bring the moose to their diagnostic lab. Transporting a thousand-pound moose out of the woods is no easy task, so Carstensen's team has modified trucks, ATVs, and snowmobiles to help move these gigantic animals. One moose was even pulled out with a helicopter. 

The study is now two years old, but unfortunately, there are no clear answers yet. "In the health category, we’ve confirmed causes such as brainworm, severe winter tick infestations, bacterial infections from injuries and liver flukes, as well as undetermined health issues," Carstensen says. "What we might end up determining overall is that there is no smoking gun that points to just one factor that’s driving this system; it may very well end up as a mix of causes related to health, predation, habitat, weather, and even climate change."

All images courtesy of iStock. 

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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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