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10 Wild Facts About the (Now-Extinct) Tasmanian Tiger

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Almost exactly 79 years ago, on September 7, 1936, the world’s last captive thylacine died at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. (The last record of a thylacine being killed in the wild happened six years prior.) Today, we know more about this poster species for extinction than we do about many living animals.

1. THEIR RESEMBLANCE TO DOGS WAS TOTALLY SUPERFICIAL.

The thylacine got the nickname the “Tasmanian tiger” or the “Tasmanian wolf” because it looked and acted like a strange combination of the two animals. As marsupials, however, they were only distantly related to felines and canines. These very different carnivores independently evolved similar features and even (more or less) assumed the same environmental niche. This phenomenon—when near-identical traits appear in two unrelated organisms—is known as "convergent evolution" and takes place all the time. 

2. THEY WERE MAINLY NOCTURNAL.

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Thylacines were known to sunbathe at midday, but they predominantly hunted at night. Their prey included kangaroos, wallabies, small mammals, and birds. According to some eyewitness accounts, hungry thylacines would trot after their targets over a large distance, slowly tiring them out. Then, without warning, they’d break into a full run and grab their victims. However, modern research on thylacine skeletons has indicated that they were built as ambush predators rather than pursuit predators.

3. THEIR JAWS COULD OPEN TO A 120-DEGREE ANGLE.

After this thylacine was filmed in 1933, it wheeled around and bit the cameraman—zoologist David Fleay—right on the buttocks. Fortunately, the scientist walked away uninjured, if a little embarrassed. By taking one for the team, Fleay was able to capture the marsupial's threatening gesture, the yawn. When faced with danger, thylacines would respond by widening their maws and showing off an impressive gape.

4. LIKE KANGAROOS, THYLACINES WOULD SOMETIMES HOP AROUND ON TWO LEGS.

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Walking and sprinting were a thylacine’s real forte, but some footage does show them rearing up on their hind legs for brief periods of time. A few naturalists also reported seeing them engage in some short-distance bouncing.

5. DINGOES ARE OFTEN BLAMED FOR THEIR DOWNFALL.

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For more than 40,000 years, thylacines roamed both Tasmania and mainland Australia. But around 3000 or 4000 years ago, early settlers introduced dingoes to the land down under. Descended from Asian wolves, the newcomers were better equipped for lengthy runs than their marsupial counterparts. Because of this, experts have traditionally blamed them for out-competing mainland thylacines—eventually killing them off altogether. It’s also argued that thylacines only managed to hang on in Tasmania because these canines never reached the island.

But do dingoes really deserve all the blame? Perhaps not. Recent research suggests that climate change, as well as the people who first introduced dingoes, played an even bigger role in decimating Australia’s thylacine population. Also, because dingoes chase their food across open terrain and the “Tasmanian tigers” were ambush hunters, these two species might not have gone after the same types of prey. Long term coexistence could have been a reality—without human interference, that is. Still …

6. IT'S POSSIBLE THAT THYLACINES WOULD HAVE DIED OUT ANYWAY.

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Genetic diversity is the lifeblood of evolution. When an entire population shares too many traits, the shallow gene pool makes bouncing back from fatal diseases or other catastrophes very difficult. In 2012, a team of biologists compared preserved samples from 14 Tasmanian thylacines. The researchers found that in a section of DNA normally very different between individuals, the specimens were 99.5% identical. (One expert noted that “the Tasmanian tiger only averages one DNA difference between individuals, whereas the dog, for example has about five to six differences between individuals.") If left untouched by man, it’s likely that the species still wouldn’t have survived much longer than it did.

7. THEY'RE DEPICTED IN ANCIENT ROCK ART.

At some point during the past 40,000 years, an Aboriginal artist left this painting on a rock face in northern Australia. The site also includes illustrations of fish, kangaroos, and human figures

8. TASMANIA'S GOVERNMENT DECIDED TO START PROTECTING THEM 59 DAYS BEFORE THE LAST ONE PERISHED.

His name was Benjamin and, sadly, he (or possibly “she”) didn’t die of natural causes. After every other thylacine known to man had passed away, Benjamin lingered on inside the Beaumaris Zoo. Then, one cold September night, the creature was accidentally locked out of its shelter. Soon enough, he succumbed to the frigid temperatures and this once-proud species went out with a whisper.

Just a couple months earlier, on July 10, 1936, Tasmania had officially listed the thylacine as a protected species. Had this move come a century earlier, it might have done some good. Benjamin was killed by an act of human carelessness. His ancestors, on the other hand, were deliberately hunted down.

Believing that thylacines killed sheep, the private Van Diemens Land Company fought back, offering a bounty of 5 shillings for a male’s carcass and 7 for a female’s. The Tasmanian government later followed suit by directly paying its own residents to slaughter the animals. Before this state-sponsored hunt was disbanded in 1909, taxpayer money had financed the deaths of 2,184 thylacines.

9. TWO ARE PROMINENTLY DISPLAYED ON THE TASMANIAN COAT OF ARMS.

Approved in 1917, the design also includes a shield that pays homage to the country’s traditional commodities: hops, apples, wheat, and sheep. Look closely and you’ll notice that the red lion’s holding a shovel and pick as a tribute to Tasmania’s miners. Below it all is the Latin motto “ubertas et fidelitas,” or “fidelity and faithfulness.”

10. TED TURNER ONCE OFFERED A $100,000 REWARD TO ANYONE WHO COULD PROVE THEY'RE STILL AT LARGE.

Thylacines are often mentioned in the same breath as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Since Benjamin’s abrupt demise, more than 3000 unconfirmed “sightings” of live specimens have been reported. In 1983, CNN’s founding father raised the stakes by promising $100,000 in exchange for proof of the thylacine’s survival (he later revoked the offer).

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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