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14 Huge Facts About Elephant Seals

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Extreme divers and polygamous lovers, these “elephants of the sea” are some of the oddest marine mammals alive—which is saying something.

1. THERE ARE TWO SEPARATE SPECIES ...

Hit any beach from Alaska to Mexico and you just might spot a northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) colony. Of the two species, this one’s smaller in overall size—though males come with longer trunks. To spot southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), you'll have to travel below the equator.

2. ... AND ONE NEARLY WENT EXTINCT.

Slaughtered en masse for their oil-producing blubber, the northern elephant seal was at one time close to extinction. By 1892, many assumed that this poor species had quietly disappeared forever.

However, a small breeding colony managed to endure. It was estimated that, in 1910, some 20 to 100 northern elephant seals were still alive. All of these survivors dwelled on or around Guadalupe Island off Mexico’s Baja California coast. Things finally started to turn around for the species in 1922, when the island became a biological reserve, and the seals received government protection. Since then, the global population has ballooned up to 160,000—all of whom are descended from those Guadalupe Island holdouts.

3. SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS ARE HUGE.

Seals, sea lions, and walruses are collectively known as pinnipeds. Unlike most other ocean-going mammals (like whales and dugongs), these beasts aren’t fully aquatic: They clamber out of the water to rest, molt, mate, and rear pups. There are 33 known pinniped species, and the absolute biggest is the southern elephant seal. From end to end, large individuals can grow to lengths of 20 feet and weigh up to 8800 pounds.

4. MALES DWARF FEMALES.

Next to a 4.5-ton bull, female southern elephant seals look puny. In general, males are seven or eight times heavier than females and can be twice as long. For northern elephant seals, the situation is similar, but less extreme. In this species, males max out at around 13 feet long and 4500 pounds, while the heftiest females are some 3000 pounds lighter and 3 feet shorter in length.

5. ELEPHANT SEALS CAN DIVE A MILE OR MORE BELOW THE WAVES.

In 2012, marine biologists tracked a northern female’s progress as she descended to the amazing depth of 5788 feet under the surface. Elephant seals are great at holding their breath and can remain submerged for up to two hours straight.

6. THEY MAINLY EAT SQUID.

What exactly do elephant seals do during those epic dives? Grab some calamari. By dissecting stomachs from dead specimens, scientists have learned that the mammals have a squid-based diet. Elephant seals also eat fish and crustaceans—albeit less often.

7. MALES HAVE MASSIVE, INFLATABLE SNOUTS.

A male’s most conspicuous feature is, of course, something that females lack—namely, his bulbous nose, which comes with a sack-like appendage known as a proboscis. Expanding the proboscis enables an elephant seal to amplify snorts, grunts, and loud, drum-like bellows that can be heard several miles away.

8. RIVALS RECOGNIZE EACH OTHERS’ VOICES.

The proboscis’s main function is to emit noises that—ideally—ward off rival males, stopping fights before they start. Over time, a masculine hierarchy is established—but it looks like a bull can’t climb very far up the ladder until he’s backed up a few threats.

For a four year period beginning in 2009, a team from the University of California Santa Cruz conducted an experiment with some nearby elephant seals. The scientists set up shop along the beaches of Año Nuevo State Park and recorded the warning calls made by individual males who frequented the area, then broadcasted them over a speaker later.

“What we were interested in is what type of information is contained in the vocalizations produced by males and how this information is used during the breeding season,” graduate student Caroline Casey says in the above video. “We found that when we played back the call of an animal’s most familiar dominant rival, he actually moved away from the speaker.” Conversely, broadcasting grunts from a subordinate triggered the opposite reaction. In that situation, Casey says, the same male “attacked, or called at the speaker.”

But how would a bull from some completely different breeding colony react? To find out, Casey and her colleagues visited a cluster of elephant seals residing 300 miles south. By and large, the team’s recordings had no effect there. “Only three out of the 20 males that we did playbacks to moved at all,” Casey says.

The researchers concluded that a “back off!” cry means nothing if the listener doesn’t recognize the voice in question. According to Casey, “They only really know how to assess these calls if they’ve had previous interactions with [the callers].”

9. THEY CAN CONSERVE WATER USE WITH CONCENTRATED PEE.

On dry land, elephant seals often go without drinking for extended periods. To avoid dehydration, their kidneys can produce concentrated urine that contains more waste and less actual water in every drop. After a few drinks, they switch back to excreting standard pee.

10. ALPHA MALES ARE PROLIFIC BREEDERS.

A colony’s most dominant bull—also known as a “harem master”—rounds up many of its females for himself. He then more or less maintains exclusive reproductive access to just about every single one of them—that is, until a competitor dethrones him.

A massive elephant seal paternity test revealed just how prolific a harem master can be. Conducted in the Falkland Islands, this study examined one large colony over a two-year period. A whopping 90 percent of documented pups were fathered by dominant males, and harem masters produced as many as 125 offspring. On the other hand, 72 percent of subordinate males were never observed mating—not even once. Tough break.

11. THEIR MILK IS INCREDIBLY HIGH IN FAT.

When a mother elephant seal gives birth, the milk she secretes is around 12 percent fat. Two weeks later, that number increases to over 50 percent, giving the liquid a pudding-like consistency. By comparison, cow milk is only 3.5 percent fat.

12. WITHIN A SINGLE MONTH, NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL PUPS QUADRUPLE THEIR BIRTH WEIGHT.

Once the lactation process starts, these pups grow up fast: In just 30 days, an average pup will go from weighing 75 to 300 pounds.

13. THEY'VE DONE SOME VOICE ACTING.

In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scrawny, cave-dwelling Moria orcs emit an eerie battle screech. When creating their cries, sound effects designer David Farmer found an oceanic source of inspiration.

“[The] major signature sound for them was … elephant seal pups,” he said in 2010. Farmer describes the unique noise as "a nice projecting call," lending itself nicely to reverberation. "The scene in the mines of Moria at the 'Drums in the deep' are all elephant seals distanced.”

These aren't the only pinniped noises in the trilogy. According to Farmer, the muscle-clad Uruk orcs were vocally based “on sea lions, especially for the pain reactions, with tigers and leopards for more aggressive attacks.”

14. A DESTRUCTIVE ELEPHANT SEAL IN NEW ZEALAND LOVED CARS TO A FAULT.

All was peaceful in Gisborne, New Zealand—until Homer came along. Named after everyone’s favorite Simpsons character, Homer was, according to the narrator of the above video, “a 14 foot-long, 4500-pound [southern] elephant seal who likes to turn parked cars into punching bags.”

His reign of terror began in May 2000. Seemingly without provocation, Homer rose from the depths and attacked at least three cars, multiple boat trailers, a pothutukawa tree, and a trash bin. In the process, he became something of a minor celebrity, appearing on news broadcasts all over the world. Later, Homer strolled over to an unsuspecting restaurant, struck the outside transformer, and singlehandedly knocked out the establishment’s power.

Weird as it may sound, these all could have been crimes of passion. “Homer has got a bit of a problem,” Andy Bassett, a member of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, told the BBC. “He’s actually attracted to cars, and his two tonnes rubbing on a car makes a bit of a dent. We are hoping that he will take off and go back to the sub-Antarctic and try to look for lady friends down there.”

Soon enough, Homer did indeed bid Gisborne farewell, but it’s fair to say that the townspeople will never forget him.

All images courtesy of iStock

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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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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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