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12 Cool Species Discovered in 2015

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Scientists have already cataloged some 1.2 million species, but there’s still plenty of work to do. Some researchers estimate that around 86 percent of the species on earth still await description. Taxonomists continue to chip away at the number, and in the last decade or so, have reported around 16,000 new species each year. 2015 was no different, and they discovered a variety of wonderful new forms of life. Here are just a few of them. 


Biologist James Thomas discovered this amphipod (a type of crustacean) living inside sponges and bivalves on coral reefs around the Indonesian coast. When he got one under the microscope, he thought that its large claws looked a lot like shoes. He decided to name the species in honor of Elton John, whose music he said he often listens to in the lab, and whose oversized boots in Tommy resembled the critter’s claws. 


aposematic herpetologist, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

It shouldn’t be easy for something as big as a tortoise to go unnoticed for long, especially in a place that gets as much attention from biologists as the Galapagos Islands. But that’s sort of what happened on the island of Santa Cruz. The Galapagos tortoise populations on the east and west ends of the island looked so similar that they were considered the same species, but a genetic analysis led by evolutionary biologist Adalgisa Caccone revealed that they’re two different species. What’s more, they’re both more closely related to species on other islands than they are to each other. To figure out which population got renamed as a new species, the researchers turned to taxonomy experts, and decided that east side population could become Chelonoidis donfaustoi. The species is named after Fausto Llerena Sánchez, a park ranger who was the primary caretaker of the famous tortoise Lonesome George. 


The white-cheeked macaque, discovered in southeastern Tibet, owes its name to its white whiskers, but it was a feature a little further down that helped researchers determine it as a new species. Among other differences between it and the other macaque species in the region, are the shape and color of its business parts. While the other species there have penises with spear-shaped tips and white scrotums, the new guy has a rounded penis and a dark, hairy scrotum. 


To the international team found that found this bird in China, it's no wonder that the Sichuan bush warbler stayed undiscovered for so long. The species, they say, is “extremely secretive and usually difficult to observe, and normally keeps in dense cover.” The team was able to draw the bird out and distinguish it from other warbler species thanks, in part, to its odd song, a low-pitched drawn-out buzz, followed by a shorter click, repeated in series (the bird’s plumage, body structure and genetics also helped tease it apart from its cousins). The bird’s name is a nod to the late Cheng Tso-hsin, a prominent Chinese ornithologist who founded the Peking Natural History Museum when he wasn’t busy writing one of the 100+ scientific papers he published during his career. 


Kristensen et al. in Systematic Entomology

A team of researchers spent years capturing moths on Australia’s Kangaroo Island, and caught a number of specimens that they didn’t recognize. After analyzing the moths’ physical features and DNA, the scientists concluded that the insects were not only a new species, but belonged an entirely new family. They named this new grouping Aenigmatineidae after the moths' “enigmatic combination” of modern and primitive physical traits. The moths are incredibly short-lived, according to the researchers, and emerge from their cocoons, mate, lay their eggs and die all in just one day. 


Researchers working in Los Angeles described a whopping 30 new species in a single paper this spring, all flies from the genus Megaselia and all found in backyards around the city. The flies were discovered in insect traps hosted by citizen scientists, and each new species was named after the person whose yard it came from. The discoveries show that unknown species aren’t just lurking in exotic, far-off places but can be found right outside our homes. 


This centimeter-long insect, one of three new species discovered by a pair of Australian naturalists, is found only in Launceston, Tasmania. Its known range is less than 12 square kilometers in the city’s parks and it hasn’t been found anywhere outside the city limits. Biologist Robert Nesibov, who described the species, named it after the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis when the naturalists noted that the bug’s genitals resembled the god’s ears and snout. 


Discovered in Costa Rica, Diane's bare-hearted glass frog stands out for two reasons. The first is its bulging white eyes and big black pupils, which prompted widespread comparisons to Kermit the Frog (and even a comment from the Muppet himself) when the discovery was announced. If you can get past the similarity long enough to flip the frog over, you’ll find the second notable characteristic: like other glass frogs', H. dianae’s belly skin is translucent, giving a clear view of its organs. 


Like C. donfaustoi, this bat has been hiding right under scientists’ noses for a while, and was long mistaken for one of its relatives. Biologists Ricardo Moratelli and Daniela Dias were doing research on the tropical bat group Lonchophylla when they noticed that some of their specimens of the species L. mordax, collected from museums around the world, didn’t look quite right. The bats’ fur was much paler and their body measurements were inconsistent with what’s typical of the species. A closer look revealed that these animals belonged to a species unknown to science. The researchers named their discovery inexpectata as a nod to their surprise in finding a new species among misidentified museum collections. 


Figures 5A and 5B are two views of the tiny A. nana snail. Image credit: Vermeulen et al. in ZooKeys 

Just a few weeks after Angustopila dominikae was discovered and named the world’s smallest snail, Acmella nana broke the record again. Discovered along with 47 other new species in Malaysian Borneo, the tiny critter has a shell that’s just 0.50–0.60 mm wide and 0.60–0.79 tall. It’s named for its small stature, with “nanus” coming from the Latin for “dwarf.”


Normally, a species is described and named after a rigorous examination of a dead specimen and comparison to similar specimens. That’s what biologists Stephen Marshall and Neal Evenhuis would have done with a rare unidentified fly they found in South Africa, but the bug they caught escaped before it could be preserved. They had plenty of photographs of two of the flies, though, and decided to base their description of the species on those. It was the first time this had been done with a new insect species, but the scientists think that it will become common practice. While collecting and preserving specimens is the “gold standard” for species descriptions, they say, it’s becoming harder for scientists to get the permits they need to collect specimens in many places and “digital specimens” in the form of photos may have to take their place in some cases. As for the new fly, the scientists note that it has a “striking yellow and black” pattern and odd body shape, that make it look a lot like bees, which they think it might parasitize. 


It took dozens of researchers, support staff, and six cavers to retrieve more than 1500 fossil fragments from deep within the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The end result of all that work is the description of Homo naledi, a potential new species of extinct hominin. Scientists aren’t yet sure when the ancient human relative lived or exactly how it fits in our family tree, but it looks like nothing else in the human fossil record.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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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.