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11 Wild Facts About Dingoes

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When most people hear the word "dingo," they most likely think of the famous movie line "a dingo ate my baby." While inspired by true events, there's a lot more to learn about the creatures than their baby-snatching reputations would suggest.

1. THE DINGO IS NOT A DOG BREED.

Technically, dingoes are not a breed of dog. They're only semi-domesticated and are just as much wolf as they are dog. So far, it's unclear if Canis lupus dingo was ever fully domesticated. Some evidence suggests that they may once have been pets, but were abandoned and left to revert to their wild state. It's believed that travelers from Indonesia or Southeast Asia dropped the once-domesticated dogs in Australia roughly 4000 years ago. The dogs, left to their own devices, thrived by falling back on the wolfish instincts of their ancestors. While some dingoes would travel and eat with Aboriginal tribes on the Australian continent, they were wary companions and certainly not pets.

2. THEY'RE CONSIDERED PESTS.

Left to fend for themselves, dingoes became the largest predator in Australia and enjoyed a wide variety of prey to gobble down. It wasn't until the English came to the country with their sheep that the dingo ran into some trouble. Dingoes feasted on the newcomers' livestock until the farmers were at their wit's end. While most dogs are considered man's best friend, dingoes are decidedly an enemy of the Australian farmer. Some sheep owners today have resorted to "guard donkeys" to protect their stock. The hoofed animals are low maintenance and scare away dingoes and foxes with their powerful kicks.

3. THE LARGEST FENCE IN THE WORLD WAS BUILT TO KEEP OUT DINGOES.

Australians desperate to keep their flocks safe resorted to building a fence in southeastern Australia to keep the dingoes out. The impressive fence is one of the longest structures in the world and is generally considered the longest fence. The original incarnation was a collection of small fences built in the 1880s to prevent the spread of rabbit plague, but they quickly fell into disrepair. In the early 1900s, they were repaired and converted into dingo fences. The various structures were connected in the 1940s to create one giant, continuous fence. It once stretched 8614 kilometers (5352.5 miles) long, but has since been shortened to 5614 kilometers (3488.4 miles). It costs 10 million Australian dollars a year in upkeep, but is considered mostly a success at keeping the predators out.

4. THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS.

The range of climates across Australia likely led to the development of different types of dingo, which all reside in different areas of the continent. Desert dingoes are reddish, golden yellow, or sand colored with a compact body size. Alpine dingoes are the most rare in the wild and have a light cream coat. Finally, northern dingoes have a finer stature and lack the double coat the other two types have.

5. SOME PEOPLE KEEP THEM AS PETS...

Some people might frown upon keeping a semi-wild animal as a pet, but others find dingo ownership to be very rewarding. The dogs are very loving and emotionally in tune. The attractive canines are lot like other domesticated dog breeds and can be walked on a leash and brought to the dog park.

That said, the dogs are very high-maintenance. Since dingoes are closely related to wolves, they have deeply ingrained pack values. They don't like being left alone and greetings are a necessary 15-minute procedure filled with patting, talking, and kissing. Failure to properly pay attention to the dogs' needs and pack mentality will leave the dogs disappointed and upset. Owners of dingoes will not be able to move frequently because of the dogs' dislike of change. Having a dingo as a pet is a full time responsibility, as dingoes don't handle rejection well and will likely not emotionally recover from being placed in a new home.

6. ...BUT IT'S ILLEGAL TO KEEP THEM AS PETS IN SOME PLACES.

In places like New South Wales and Western Australia, it's legal to own a dingo without a permit. Victoria and the Northern Territory require a special permit, but in Tasmania, Queensland, and South Australia, the wild dogs are completely illegal to own.

7. SOME DOGS HAVE DINGO IN THEIR ANCESTRY

Despite being somewhat wild, dingoes are still dogs and have mixed with other canine natives of Australia. You can find dingo blood in Australian Kelpies and Australian cattle dogs. Breeders realized that the sturdy wild dogs were perfect to help bulk up working dogs.

8. DINGOES HAVE OWL-LIKE ABILITIES

Dingoes are well-equipped for the Australian Outback, and have an impressive sense of vision. They can even swivel their heads about 180 degrees. Comparatively, owls can turn their heads 270 degrees; humans can only turn theirs 45 to 70 degrees.

9. THEIR BENDY WRISTS ARE HELPFUL.

Just like humans, dingoes have rotating wrists. This allows them to use their paws like hands to catch prey. It also helps them better climb trees and even open doors. Their flexible wrists let them climb and enter places other dogs can't go, making them a formidable pest for farmers trying to keep them away from their livestock.

10. THEY DON'T REALLY BARK.

Unlike your standard dog, dingoes are much quieter. Instead of barking, the dogs have a yodel-like howl.

11. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME IN CAPTIVITY.

In the wild, dingoes live somewhere between five to 10 years, but in captivity, they can live upwards of 18 to 20 years. This number is pretty impressive, as most domesticated dogs don't boast such a long lifespan. Comparatively, the English springer spaniel, which is roughly the same size as the dingo, only lives 10 to 14 years.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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