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10 Trippy Facts About Triops

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Try to picture a tiny, transparent crustacean that looks like a hybrid of a centipede and a horseshoe crab with a zillion writhing legs. While they’re not likely to win any beauty contests, triops are impressive little critters. The genus Triops has been around for as long as 300 million years—that’s about 200 million years older than T. Rex—making them the oldest known animals on the planet. Here are some other fun facts about these resilient creatures.

1. TRIOPS ARE OFTEN CALLED "LIVING FOSSILS,” BUT THAT'S A MISNOMER.

Commonly known as tadpole shrimp, they appear to be almost identical physically to their fossilized ancestors. But appearances can be deceiving. Recent research shows that their DNA and reproductive techniques are constantly evolving.

2. THEY OFTEN HAVE A VARIETY OF WAYS TO REPRODUCE.

In addition to sexual reproduction, some eggs are capable of developing without fertilization. Other triops are hermaphrodites. This means an entire population can develop from just one egg. No wonder they’ve survived for so long.

3. THERE ARE MORE THAN A DOZEN TRIOPS SPECIES.

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 

They're found in seasonal ponds, pools, and puddles all over the world. Triops were around before the break-up of the last supercontinent, which helps explain why they live on every continent except Antarctica. Triops longicaudatus, a rather fancy critter with a long tail, frequents all but the colder regions of North America, while Triops newberryi prefers the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest and parts of California. Triops granarius is found throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Triops Australiensis calls, you guessed it, Australia home. Triops cancriformis, the oldest species, hails from Europe, the Middle East, and India, and is considered endangered in the UK.  

4. TRIOPS MEANS "THREE EYES" IN GREEK.

They Might Be Giants wrote a song about this helpful feature. Sing along with the kids:

Two eyes on a face
Are usually enough
But triops has got
One that looks up
And one that looks around
And one to keep an eye
On the other pair of guys
Triops has three eyes

5. THEY CAN HAVE AS MANY AS 140 (SURPRISINGLY MULTIPURPOSE) LEGS.

What what they do with them is far more impressive than walking or swimming. Some legs act as antennae that help them find food, while others create a water current to direct food toward their mouth. Females have capsules on some of their legs to carry eggs. Some triops have lobe or leaf-like extensions on their legs that function similarly to gills, allowing them to breathe.

6.THEY EAT A LOT—INCLUDING EACH OTHER.

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Triops have a varied diet, from mosquito larvae to aquatic plants and tiny invertebrates to, um, other triops. Yes, to support their rapid growth, larger triops will cannibalize smaller ones if food supplies run low. Hey, when your home is perpetually in danger of drying up, you have to eat as much as you can so you can grow and breed before it’s too late.

7. THEY GROW QUICKLY—AND THAT CAN BE DEADLY.

Many reaching maturity in one to two weeks—but their exoskeletons do not. That requires them to molt regularly as they outgrow their exoskeletons. Young triops grow so quickly that molting is a daily experience, and a dangerous one: They can die if they don’t successfully shed the old exoskeleton.

8. TRIOPS EGGS CAN LAY DORMANT FOR DECADES, AND THEN HATCH IN WATER.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

They achieve this by laying something called cysts, or resting eggs, that are eggs with a special structure that protects the interior from extreme temperatures, drought, and even radiation. These cysts allow triops to move into new territory by hitching a ride with some pretty far-out modes of transportation, including inside migrating birds and in the feet and poop of animals that pick them up from puddles and pools.

9. THEY CAN SURVIVE IN OUTER SPACE FOR 18 MONTHS.

Tests on the International Space Station (ISS) prove this hardiness. Those findings led to a NASA high school experiment last year that sent Triops Longicaudatus back to the ISS to test whether it could be grown in space and serve as a high-protein food source for astronauts on future long-term missions.

10. CHARMED? YOU CAN HAVE YOUR OWN!

There is a wide assortment of triops starter kits out there to choose from. They’re low-commitment, too: Triops only live for 1–3 months (less if they eat each other). And when one batch dies out, you can dry out the soil or sand in the tank and transfer it to fresh water. If resting eggs are in the sand, with the proper care, you'll soon have another group of triops. 

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
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]

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