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15 Animal Superlatives

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While just about every creature in the animal kingdom has some fascinating characteristic, only some can reign supreme when it comes to measurable grandeur. Earning distinction as the fastest, largest, loudest, or longest-living critter on the planet is no mean feat, and those denizens of the land, sea, and sky that have earned these superlatives deserve due recognition!


The cheetah is often credited with this honor, though the swift African cat—which can reach speeds of approximately 75 miles per hour—is only the fastest land animal. In fact, the black marlin, generally considered to be the fastest-swimming fish, beats this rate: It clocks in at about 80 miles per hour. But topping both by a wide margin is the peregrine falcon, the fastest animal known to man, which has been measured to fly as fast as 242 miles per hour.


The other side of the equation can be just as impressive. The slowest known flier is the American woodcock, which floats by at only 5 miles per hour. However, that’s practically lightning-fast compared to the average speeds of the sloth—the slowest land animal, which skulks about at .15 miles per hour—and the dwarf seahorse—the slowest sea creature with a typical speed of only 5 feet per hour!


Even after distinguishing animals from living creatures like microorganisms, the question of smallest is a complicated one. The tiniest mammal, for instance, could be either the Etruscan Pygmy shrew, which weighs in as lightest in its class at an average of 1.9 grams, or the bumblebee bat, which is slightly heavier (averaging 2 grams) but measures about a quarter of an inch shorter at 1.4 inches head to tail.

Smaller still are the top ranking reptile (the .6-inch-long dwarf gecko), fish (the .31-inch-long Paedocypris progenetica cyprinid fish from Indonesia), and amphibian (the .3-inch-long Paedophryne amauensis frog from Papua New Guinea). The latter is, in fact, the smallest known vertebrate living today.

But towering over (or under, as the case may be) the lot of them is the fairyfly, a parasitic wasp that measures only one 5000th of an inch.


No contest here. With an average length of almost 85 feet and estimated average weight (no individual has ever been weighed whole) of 210 tons, the blue whale beats any other known species, extant or extinct—and that includes dinosaurs—in the heavyweight championship.


While the blue whale may have sheer mass down pat, the record for head-to-tail length belongs to another creature. The bootlace worm, a species of ribbon worm found primarily around the United Kingdom and the European countries neighboring the North Sea, can reach 190 feet in length, yet rarely exceeds a few inches in width.


The blue whale may hold yet another record when it comes to vocal sound, emitting a holler that reaches 188 decibels (two thirds louder than an average jet engine), but this might not in fact be the loudest noise created organically by a member of the animal kingdom. For this achievement, we look to a creature much smaller than the blue whale: the tiger pistol shrimp, which can produce with the snapping of its claw a sharp click that projects at more than 200 decibels.


Turtles and tortoises have a reputation for long, healthy living, and indeed one particular tortoise might be the longest living land animal in known history. Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise kept in India’s Alipore Zoo until his death in 2006, was thought to be about 250 years old—that puts his birth in the mid 1700s.

But once more, we find the really big winners hidden beneath the sea. Another impressive individual is Ming, the ocean quahog clam who also died in 2006 (something’s fishy about that), at an estimated age of 507 years old.

However, that’s nothing still in comparison to its fellow sea dweller, the Antarctic sponge; some of these beings are thought to have been around for 1500 years!

The question gets ever more complicated when we consider one of the most fascinating phenomena in the animal kingdom: the “immortality” of the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish. Upon reaching biological maturity, one of these creatures will reconstruct its own molecular makeup to revert back to a state of infancy, reliving its own lifespan once more from the start. The process happens over and over, without any glimmer of organic termination, suggesting that the jellyfish in question is the only known animal that might actually never die.


If those are surreal numbers, imagine the other extreme: an entire life lasting only a day. That’s the fate of the mayfly, tragic (and perhaps a little poetic) though it may be.


There’s already very little common ground between the koala and the shark before you throw sleeping patterns into the equation. The adorable tree-dwelling marsupial snoozes more than just about any other creature, spending 22 hours of any given day dormant.

The shark, on the other hand, is never truly asleep. It simply slows its biological activity for occasional rest. Fellow go-getters include the giraffe and the elephant, which only sleep about four hours a night. The latter can actually take quick power naps while standing upright.


When it comes to basic clarity of vision over long distances, few can beat the bald eagle and its fellow birds of prey, whose eyesight is at least eight times as sharp as a human being’s. Owls rank high when it comes to night vision, as do tarsiers, which are diminutive predatory primates with tremendous eyeballs.

But when it comes to command of color, one animal puts the rest to shame: the mantis shrimp, which can see colors that no other creature on Earth can. The human eye has three different types of photoreceptors designed for reading color, all falling under the umbrella term “cones.” Whereas a human’s cones come in three types—those tuned into red, blue, and green wavelengths—the mantis shrimp has 12 to 16 different photoreceptors. This allows it to see colors we cannot even imagine, although some scientists believe that they still have trouble telling these colors apart in certain situations.


Simon Hinkley & Ken Walker, Museum Victoria

As the common moth has a reputation for being inscrutably obsessed with bright lights (often to the point of its own demise), you’d guess that the insect’s eyesight is not its most sophisticated sense. In fact, the greater wax moth’s real claim to fame is its hearing. Though not an exotic critter by anyone’s measure (this particular species of moth, also called the honeycomb moth, is found throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia), the greater wax moth manages a rare feat of auditory prowess, catching frequencies at 300 kHz. Fifteen times better than a human’s, almost twice as good as a dolphin’s, and one-and-a-half times stronger than a bat’s hearing, this is the best known aural capacity in the animal kingdom.


We hear stories of lost dogs sniffing their ways back home, or polar bears smelling delicious sea lions from a mile away. But the best nose in the animal kingdom is one that often goes unheralded, despite being as obvious a candidate as you’d imagine. It’s the elephant’s.

The elephant doesn’t only have the strongest sense of smell, it has the most sophisticated understanding thereof, bearing 1,984 different olfactory receptor genes—twice as many as the average dog or rat has. An elephant’s nose is instrumental in not only its foraging habits, but also in reproduction and social interaction. Furthermore, an African elephant can differentiate between predatory human tribes and peaceful ones based on smell alone.


The important difference between poison and venom distinguishes these two top-honored species from one another. Poison is transferred from one organism to another through touch or ingestion, while venom is delivered via a bite or sting—usually an attack by the toxic animal intending to kill its prey or predator.

In the former category, we have the golden poison frog, a species of poison dart frog. The glowing Colombia native is believed to contain enough poison in its body to wipe out 10,000 mice, 15 humans, or two elephants. In the latter category, we have the box jellyfish, whose powerful sting seizes victims instantaneously, assaulting the skin, heart, and nervous system all at once.


But neither one of these reigns as the deadliest animal, a superlative that belongs (quite horrifyingly) to the mosquito. The disease-ridden insect is responsible for more human deaths than any other creature, taking a startling 725,000 lives every year.


The distinction of “smartest” when assessing the varied members of the animal kingdom is perhaps the hardest one to make, considering the great deal we have yet to learn about intelligence, both in general and as it applies to particular species. That said, a small handful of mammals consistently top the list.

When discussing the smarts of great apes, the chimpanzee, orangutan, and gorilla tend to alternate between the gold, silver, and bronze positions; still, the chimp is the most consistent top placer, bearing an intellectual makeup that appears closer and closer to that of a human as more studies are conducted. Beyond technical and linguistic sophistication, a chimp is believed to have complex emotionality. Its relationships and sense of self are strikingly familiar.

Of course, the dolphin is the primate’s most stalwart contender for the honor of smartest animal. While we have less an understanding of a dolphin’s mental acuity than we do of a chimp's or gorilla’s on the whole, we have come to recognize remarkable nuance in dolphin language, social relationships, and even ingenuity and creativity.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]