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Rebecca O'Connell (istock)

8 Adorable Animals That Are Surprisingly Violent

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Rebecca O'Connell (istock)

They’re cute. They’re cuddly. They’re killers. 

1. Koala 

It may seem hard to believe, but the world’s most cuddly animal has a dark side. Most of the time, these tree-huggers keep to themselves, adhering to a strict schedule of snacking and snoozing (up to 22 hours a day). But sometimes, a koala snaps. Koala-on-koala violence is generally pretty mild, but they have been known to go after dogs and even humans.

For example: In December 2014, Mary Anne Forster of South Australia found herself at the receiving end of a vicious bite after trying to protect her two dogs from an aggressive koala. The koala sank its teeth into Forster’s leg and refused to let go, relenting only after she reached into its mouth and pried its jaws apart with her hands. Forster then walked her dogs more than a mile back to her house before going to the hospital for stitches, proving that the only thing tougher than Australian wildlife is an Australian. 

2. Beaver 

They’ve got huge, razor-sharp teeth that never stop growing. They’re fiercely territorial. They build complex underwater lodges with architectural precision. And, most importantly, they don’t take crap from anybody. There was the fisherman in Belarus who died when a beaver bit through his femoral artery. There was the lake in an Alaskan dog park where angry beavers sent a half-dozen dogs to the emergency vet for stitches, prompting park officials to post signs reading "WARNING AGGRESSIVE BEAVERS ARE LIVING IN UNIVERSITY LAKE!" 

And those are just the healthy, well-adjusted ones. Rabid beavers have gone after swimmers in Canada and the U.S., including an 83-year-old woman in Lake Bancroft, Virginia. “There is no way I will swim in that place again,” she said. 

3. Cow 

Magret Bunzel-Drüke CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cow) // iStock (Nunchucks) 

Not all cows. But some cows. And those cows are terrifying. They’re called Heck cattle, also known—and I am not making this up—as “Nazi Super Cows.”

In the 1920s and '30s, German brother zoologists Heinz and Lutz Heck sought to recreate the extinct wild ox called the aurochs, which featured heavily in Teutonic mythology. They chose Spanish fighting cattle for their prehistoric shape and aggression, and envisioned a world where they could hunt these enormous, angry cows. Then, you know, World War II. The Nazis fell.

The uber-cows survived. They survive to this day, and available for purchase by those with a death wish. Farmer/photographer Derek Gow brought a herd of Heck cattle to his U.K. farm in 2009 and even successfully bred them before realizing he was in over his head. “They would try to kill anyone,” he told The Guardian. “Dealing with that was not a lot of fun at all.” 

4. Dolphin

iStock

It sounds outrageous, but it’s true: dolphins are actually pretty horrible.

Researchers have suspected as much since the 1990s, when the battered corpses of hundreds of porpoises and baby dolphins started washing up on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually the researchers concluded that male dolphins were slaughtering other dolphins, including their own babies, just because they could [PDF].

This news was especially alarming to federal officials, who were concerned about human safety in the growing and unregulated industry of dolphin tourism. “It’s a time bomb waiting to go off,” said a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service

If that’s not bad enough, dolphins have sexually assaulted divers and swimmers on numerous occasions, and have been known to play volleyball with helpless baby sharks.

5. Prairie Dog

Devon Pike via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Move over, dolphins: you’ve got competition for Most Horrifying Murder Spree. And prairie dogs, as it turns out, do not take kindly to competition. Researchers say white-tailed prairie dogs routinely hunt and slaughter ground squirrels, with which they compete for resources. 

The prairie dogs are plant-eaters, so once they’ve bitten the squirrels to death, they just drop the carcasses and stroll away. The first time prairie dog expert John Hoogland saw it happen, he was shocked. “It boggles the imagination that something like that was going on under our noses and we didn’t notice,” he told New Scientist (which—be warned—includes Hoogland's gruesome images of the carnage in its story).

Unlike the murder-happy dolphins, however, the prairie dogs have a clear motivation. Prairie dog serial killers (that is, those that just kept killing) tend to have more babies than non-killers, and they and their offspring are more likely to survive. 

“It begs the question of whether it’s going on in other species,” Hoogland said.

6. Slow Loris 

iStock

After the dolphin, the slow loris looks like a saint. A shy, weird, Cute Overload-worthy saint … with a mouth full of needle-like teeth and venomous elbows.

Yes, the slow loris has venomous elbows. When a loris feels threatened, it throws its arms over its head. This is adorable, but it’s also strategic, giving the little primate an opportunity to lick the toxin-producing glands in its upper arms and fill its mouth with venom. While the venom itself is only strong enough to kill smaller animals, loris bites have sent humans—including one researcher—to the hospital in anaphylactic shock.

Some scientists argue that the loris’s elbow grease isn’t venom at all, and that its ability to kill is purely incidental. This is probably not much comfort to someone who’s just been bitten.

7. Swan 

iStock

Like most cows, most swans are fine. Sure, they get a bit territorial during breeding season, but who doesn’t? But the swans that are not fine are really, really not fine.

Take Hannibal, the swan who killed 15 other swans and injured dozens more on the grounds of Pembroke Castle in Wales. Hannibal bit his victims, beat them with his wings, broke their toes, and held their heads underwater until they drowned. After each brutal attack, Hannibal would parade in front of his kill, displaying the carnage for his wife—Mrs. Hannibal—and cygnet. 

And then there’s Mr. Asbo, the swan that terrorized rowers on the River Cam for years. Mr. Asbo (short for “Anti-Social Behaviour Orders”) regularly attacked and even capsized small boats before turning his aggression on larger vessels. Eventually, even the RSPCA agreed that Mr. Asbo was “out of control” and got a license to relocate the pair to another county. One year later, a young male swan appeared in the same spot and started threatening people. Locals named the cocky newcomer Asboy, after his father.

8. Hippopotamus 

iStock

Each year, the humble hippopotamus kills more people than lions, tigers, or bears. Or sharks, for that matter. (In the hippo’s defense, humans kill quite a lot of hippopotamuses. This is not cool.) They’re intensely aggressive, which is a dangerous quality in animals that can reach 17 feet long and 10,000 pounds. They’re not slow, either: They can reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour on land, and even faster in the water. They go after each other, after humans, after crocodiles, and even after boats and jeeps, flipping the crafts and attacking the inhabitants. From time to time, some guy will decide that Hippo Rules (i.e. Hippos Are Not for Hugging) don’t apply to him. This never ends well. Don’t be that guy. 

Remember: Wild animals are not for snuggling. Of all the species mentioned above, the most dangerous by far is Homo sapiens.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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