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11 Mischievous Facts About Capuchin Monkeys

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You may not recognize the word capuchin, but you’ve probably seen these spunky little monkeys: They’ve starred in innumerable TV shows, movies, and commercials. But there’s more to them than on-screen fame. They poke each other in the eye as a bonding gesture. They throw rocks at their monkey crushes. Read on to find out more about these remarkable critters.

1. THEY’RE NAMED AFTER THE CAPUCHIN FRIARS—AND SO IS CAPPUCCINO.

In 1525, a Franciscan monk named Matteo da Bascio broke with his order's tradition. He wanted to return to the ways of St. Francis and live a more austere, hermit-like life. Da Bascio helped found a group called the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, whose members are often called Capuchin monks. They wear a brown pointed hood called a capuccino.

Those friars with the brown hoods were familiar to the European explorers who visited the forests of the new world. When these explorers encountered capuchins in the wild, they couldn’t help but think that those monkeys with hood-like tufts of brown hair looked an awful lot like the Capuchin friars. So, they named them after the Capuchins. The beverage known as cappuccino was probably also named after these coffee-colored robes.

2. ONE SPECIES WAS ONLY RECENTLY REDISCOVERED.

Male golden capuchin in São Paulo Zoo. Image credit: Miguelrangeljr via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Capuchins are a group of small monkeys with long tails that can wrap around tree branches. Their fur comes in a variety of coffee-like shades, from black (like the black-horned capuchin) to caramel (like the golden-bellied capuchin) to cream (like the white-headed capuchin). They fall into two broad categories: tufted and untufted. All are native to Central and South America.

Way back in 1648, a naturalist named Georg Marcgrave published a description [PDF] of a blonde, long-haired capuchin species, but he didn’t collect a specimen, so its identity remained a mystery. More than 350 years later, in 2006, scientists rediscovered Marcgrave’s monkey species in the wild. Dubbed the blonde capuchin (or Sapajus flavius), it’s critically endangered, with just 180 mature individuals left.

3. THEY’RE FAMOUS ON TV.

With their cute faces and charming antics, capuchin monkeys have appeared in all sorts of performances. Victorian organ grinders had capuchins that danced and collected coins. These monkeys were even outfitted in little jockey outfits and made to ride racing greyhounds. More recently, they’ve appeared in movies, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

But the most famous capuchin—at least, for Gen Xers—might be Marcel, Ross’s pet monkey from the TV show Friends. Marcel was played by a female monkey named Katie. She has since gone on to appear in other TV shows, movies, and commercials, and she’s the unofficial mascot of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team.

These appearances have prompted people to want pet capuchins. But capuchins are complex and wild, and they can become aggressive, which is why many animal welfare organizations urge people not to keep them as pets. They also get lonely, because …

4. THEY’RE HIGHLY SOCIAL.

Frans de Waal via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.5

Capuchins live in groups. They navigate their social worlds with a complex set of facial expressions and gestures [PDF]. High-ranking males are usually the fathers of all the group’s babies. But they carefully avoid inbreeding; once the dominant male’s daughters grow up, they’ll only mate with lower-ranking males. Capuchins also seem to have a sense of fairness and they avoid individuals who they perceive to be selfish. But before you start drawing too many connections between their behavior and ours, you should know that …

5. THEY POKE EACH OTHER’S EYES TO REINFORCE BONDS.

Professor Susan Perry of UCLA has been studying white-faced capuchins in the jungles of Costa Rica for 25 years. It’s grueling work, she says; “I’m always wet, chewed on, or stung.” But her hard work has paid off. She and her team have observed some amazing monkey business.

Capuchins often invent new behaviors—Dr. Perry calls them traditions—that spread through the group. One of them is, well, shoving your finger in someone else’s eye. Other traditions include sniffing each other’s hands and sucking on tails, fingers, and ears. Capuchins even bite a tuft of hair from another’s face and pass it around with their mouths. This might all be about reinforcing social bonds [PDF]. Just don’t try it with your coworkers.

6. THEY USE TOOLS.

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By now we know that other apes, such as chimpanzees, use tools. But thanks to capuchins, we know that other monkeys do it too. Capuchins were the first non-ape primates that we observed using tools in the wild. Bearded capuchins (look at this male’s handsome beard) skillfully crack nuts using a hammer-like rock and an anvil. Other species use tools, and even the recently rediscovered blonde capuchin has gotten into the act. It fishes termites out of their mounds with a special technique that includes stick rotation and tapping the nests.

7. THEY WASH WITH PEE.

Capuchins and some other New World monkey species do something called “urine washing.” They pee on their hands and use it to wash their feet. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it may be a social cue. Capuchins may urine wash to calm down aggressive friends. Males may do it to appease females or convey their sexual excitement. It may also be about improving a monkey’s grip on slippery trees by making its hands and feet … stickier. Eww.

8. SOME FEMALE CAPUCHINS THROW ROCKS AT CUTE MALES.

Females in a group of bearded capuchins have been observed throwing rocks at males in an apparent attempt to initiate sex. Scientists think that one female might have started the trend, and then other females copied her. See an adorable video of this interaction here.

9. THEY EAT FLOWERS, FROGS, AND MUCH MORE.

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Capuchin diets are pretty varied. They consume both plants and meat. If the season’s right, they’ll dine on plant parts such as fruit, seeds, leaves, and flowers. Their animal prey includes birds, oysters, lizards, frogs, and more. They’ve even been observed eating another species of monkey.

10. ENORMOUS EAGLES EAT THEM.

For a capuchin, life isn’t all fun, games, and eye-poking. Several predators lurk in the forest. Ocelots (small nocturnal wild cats) will prey on them. Snakes are also a threat—though they risk being thwacked by a club-wielding capuchin. But the most impressive predator might be the harpy eagle.

This amazing raptor has claws longer than a grizzly bear’s and a wingspan up to 6.5 feet. They’re deft flyers, even when they’re hunting in dense forests. And they’re patient; they’ll wait hours—sometimes, nearly a day—for the perfect moment to strike.

Female harpy eagles are twice as big as males and they’re better able to take down large prey such as monkeys. They’ll even grab howler monkeys that weigh up to 14 pounds. Other prey items include sloths, porcupines, anteaters, and young pigs and deer.

11. TIMES ARE TOUGH FOR CAPUCHINS.

Miguelrangeljrvia Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s not clear exactly how many capuchin species there are, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists 17. Of those species, more than half are in serious trouble. Three are listed as endangered and two as near threatened. Four of them are critically endangered, which is the most severe category for extinction risk before “extinct in the wild.” Threats to these monkeys include habitat loss and hunting for meat and for the pet trade.

Let’s protect our capuchin cousins so that they’ll keep cracking open nuts, poking each other in the eye, and throwing rocks at boys for generations to come.

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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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