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12 Huge Facts About Maine Coons

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Thanks to their sizeable bodies and sociable natures, Maine Coons are known as the “gentle giants” of cats. Here are 12 facts about one of the world’s largest domesticated felines.

1. THEY ARE MASSIVE ANIMALS.

There’s a reason why some people have mistaken pet Maine Coons for bobcats—they’re huge. Maine Coons tip the scales at anywhere from 9 to 16 pounds (female) and 13 to 18 pounds (male). Some people like to say Maine Coons are the biggest cat breed, but they actually fall somewhere between Norwegian Forest Cats, which weigh up to 16 pounds, and Ragdolls, which can weigh up to 20 pounds.

2. THEY HAVE COLORFUL ORIGIN STORIES. 

As their name suggests, Maine Coon cats are native to the Pine Tree State. Thanks to their brown coats and bushy tails, one popular (but scientifically unsound) explanation for the breed's origin is that it resulted from semi-wild domesticated cats mating with raccoons. Another theory is that Maine Coons are descendants of six pet cats that Queen Marie Antoinette shipped to Wiscasset, Maine, as she was planning her escape from France during the French Revolution.

A less intriguing—but more plausible—story is that the furry kitties originated from short-haired domestic cats breeding with longhaired cats, which may have been brought to America by the Vikings or European sailors who docked in New England during the 1700s. Since genetic testing indicates that Maine Coons are actually a descendent of both the Norwegian Forest Cat and a mysterious extinct domestic breed, the Vikings are likely responsible.

3. THEY'RE "DRESSED" FOR WINTER.

Maine Coons evolved to survive harsh winters by developing characteristics like large, tufted paws that serve as built-in “snowshoes” and a thick, bushy tail they can wrap around their bodies when they're cold.

Their crowning feature is a dense, water-repellant coat that’s longer on the stomach, ruff, and flanks. These shaggy sections keep a Maine Coon’s lower body warm when it sits on or walks across ice or snow. The fur grows shorter on the shoulders, allowing the kitties to romp through the woods without getting snared by tree branches or bushes.

4. NOT ALL MAINE COON CATS ARE BROWN.

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Maine Coons are often thought to be synonymous with their brown, raccoon-like coats. They actually come in all kinds of colors and patterns, including smoke, cream, cameo, mackerel, and tortoiseshell. But Maine Coon owners don't breed cats with lilac, chocolate, or Seal Point Siamese coloring—the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA) disqualifies against these colors, since they indicate hybridization.

5. THEY WON AMERICA'S FIRST POPULAR JURIED CAT EXHIBIT.

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One of America’s first well-known cat shows was held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1895. There, a brown tabby Maine Coon cat named Cosie won the event’s “Best Cat” award. Today, the silver collar and medal Cosey won at the event are on display at the Cat Fanciers Association headquarters in Alliance, Ohio.

For a long time after, Maine Coons were the country’s most coveted breed until Persian cats came into vogue. After that, cat fanciers stopped breeding the prize-winning Maine Coon. The cat became so scarce that some sources say it was thought to be extinct in the 1950s. Aficionados joined forces to rescue the fluffy feline from obscurity, forming the Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association in 1968. In 1976, Maine Coons were accepted for championship status by the CFA.

6. THEY’RE POPULAR IN MAINE—AND EVERYWHERE ELSE.

The Maine Coon was made the official state cat of Maine in 1985—but they're also beloved by cat lovers across America. In 2015, Maine Coons were the third most popular breed in the U.S., according to CFA registration statistics. They're also prized in Japan and Europe.

7. A MAINE COON STARRED IN THE HARRY POTTER MOVIES.

A female Maine Coon named Pebbles was one of three kitties to play Argus Filch’s pet feline, Mrs. Norris, in the Harry Potter films. Pebbles was a neutered mama cat that animal trainers "discovered" in a cattery in southwest England. She reportedly wasn’t as responsive to complex training as the film's other cat actors, but she was great at walking across the set and stopping on command. Remember those shots of Mrs. Norris pacing the halls of Hogwarts? That’s Pebbles.

8. A MAINE COON WAS CLONED COMMERCIALLY.

In 2004, a Maine Coon named Little Nicky became the first pet animal to be cloned commercially. After Little Nicky died at the age of 17, his Dallas-area owner, Julie (who declined to give her full name to media outlets), saved his tissue in a gene bank. She paid $50,000 to have the California-based Genetic Savings & Clone, Inc.—a controversial company dedicated to dog and cat cloning—transplant Little Nicky's DNA into an egg cell. A surrogate mother cat carried the embryo, and gave birth to a kitten that was similar in appearance and temperament to Julie's prized kitty.

According to newspaper interviews, Julie was a happy customer. However, she won't be commissioning a Little Nicky III anytime soon. Genetic Savings & Clone, Inc.—which made global headlines for producing the first cloned cat, CC, in 2001—closed in 2006, reportedly for financial reasons.

9. A MAINE COON WAS THE WORLD'S LONGEST CAT ...

Stewie, an 8-year-old Maine Coon, held the Guinness World Record for world's longest domestic cat before his death from cancer in 2013. When fully stretched out, Stewie measured 48.5 inches from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail bone.

10. ... AND THE WORLD'S OLDEST CAT.

Technically, Corduroy—the feline who currently holds the Guinness World Record for world's oldest living cat—is only half-Maine Coon. However, Corduroy's 26-year lifespan puts his purebred counterparts to shame.

11. THEY LOVE WATER.

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Maybe it's due to their dense, moisture-repellant coats, but for some reason, Maine Coons love water. While other cats will steer clear of a full bathtub, a Maine Coon will likely jump into it.

12. SOME MAINE COONS HAVE SIX TOES.

Jamesishere, Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Move over, Hemingway’s cats—Maine Coons sometimes also have six toes [PDF]. Early in the breed’s development, Maine Coons were often polydactyls, meaning they were born with extra appendages on their paws. Some experts estimate that as many as 40 percent of early Maine Coons had this characteristic. It stemmed from a genetic mutation, which some people say helped the cats use their paws as “natural snowshoes” during snowy Maine winters.

Thanks to the rise of cat fanciers' associations, which disqualified polydactyls from competing in the purebred class, the trait was eventually viewed as undesirable. Owners ceased breeding polydactyl Maine Coons, and 6-toed kitties gradually declined in number. However, some non-purebred litters still yield Maine Coons with extra digits.

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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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