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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. 

1. LEUCOTHOE ELTONIELTONI, AN AMPHIPOD FILLING BIG SHOES

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. 

2. CHELONOIDIS DONFAUSTOI, A TORTOISE HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

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. 

3. MACACA LEUCOGENYS, THE MONKEY WITH A WEIRD WEINER

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. 

4. LOCUSTELLA CHENGI, A SHY BIRD WITH A DISTINCT SONG

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. 

5. AENIGMATINEA GLATZELLA, MOTHS THAT LIVE THEIR ENTIRE LIVES IN ONE DAY 

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. 

6. MEGASELIA ARMSTRONGORUM, L.A.’s BACKYARD FLIES 

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. 

7. TASMANIOSOMA ANUBIS, THE URBAN MILLIPEDE

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. 

8. HYALINOBACTRACHIUM DIANAE, THE SEE-THROUGH “KERMIT” FROG

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. 

9. LONCHOPHYLLA INEXPECTATA, A BAT HIDING UNDER THE WRONG NAME

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. 

10. ACMELLA NANA, THE WORLD'S TINIEST SNAIL 

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.”

11. MARLEYIMYIA XYLOCOPAE, THE FIRST INSECT SPECIES DESCRIBED ONLY FROM PHOTOS

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. 

12. HOMO NALEDI, A NEW HUMAN RELATIVE

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
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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