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Cburnett via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Humans Have Already Killed 26 Panamanian Jaguars This Year

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Cburnett via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) report that the number of jaguar killings by humans is on the rise, and warn that the situation will continue to worsen unless steps are taken soon. They presented their findings at the 20th Congress of the Mesoamerican Society for Biology Conservation in Belize.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) can fend for itself in just about every situation out there. They’re comfortable hunting in the trees, on the forest floor, and in the water. Unlike other cats, which kill with a bite to the throat, the jaguar uses its powerful jaws and strong canine teeth to crush its prey’s skull, puncturing the brain or spinal cord. It’s an incredibly effective strategy—but only against unarmed prey. Powerful jaws are not much help when your attacker can shoot from 30 feet away.

Jaguars and humans have never been friendly, but it was once possible for the two species to coexist with relatively little bloodshed. The jaguar’s expansive range included parts of both North and South America. There was room for everyone. Then, in 1914, everything changed, says STRI’s Ricardo Moreno. “The connection was broken 100 years ago by the building of the Panama Canal,” he said in a statement. “Continued development and deforestation of Central Panama is disrupting the flow of animals and their genes, so that now the jaguar is considered an endangered species.”

And what was once a boundless jungle is rapidly changing. Cattle and sheep ranchers are setting up shop in jaguar territory, which puts everyone in a pretty dangerous position. More than half of the forest in the Isthmus of Panama is already gone. The cats are running out of safe spaces to go. And on top of that, humans have moved in on their wild food supply. It’s no wonder they’ve begun preying on people’s cows, sheep, and dogs.

Moreno and his colleagues went out into local communities, asking for information about jaguar killings. They heard from ranchers and tour guides that most of the 26 killings so far this year were acts of retaliation.

In the years between 1989 and 2014, people killed at least 230 jaguars in Panama. “We have reason to think that the actual number may be two or three times higher,” Moreno said. In 2015, 23 jaguars were killed, and we’re up to 26 so far this year.

But it may be possible to reverse the trend. STRI’s Agua Salud Project, which explores the flow and effects of fresh water through the region, has determined that it may be possible to rehabilitate at least part of the jaguars’ range.

Moreno and his colleague Ninon Meyer have also outlined four strategies to help slow, if not mitigate, the damage. Writing in the International Union for Conservation’s “Cat News” newsletter, they called for four interventions on the human side:

  • Education, especially in areas where the number of jaguar killings is high.
  • Extension programs for cattle owners who have experienced jaguar predations.
  • Economic incentives for rural communities near jaguar habitat. In one community, residents overcame losses due to predation by selling plaster casts of jaguar tracks.
  • The creation of multi-institutional alliances to unite governmental and non-governmental institutions to intervene in key areas.

“Education is key because we all deserve to understand what is happening on our planet and in our countries,” Moreno said. “But education takes years and jaguars … don’t have years.”

He entreated policymakers and citizens to support the cause: “Jaguar conservation will take dedication on the part of governments, NGOs and passionate individuals united to conserve our natural heritage, which has no borders.”

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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science
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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