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10 Surprising Facts About Butterflies

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Like living fairies, butterflies flutter across flowery meadows on beautiful wings. But put aside your fairy fantasies for a moment and consider that some butterflies drink tears, eat poop, wear false heads, and kill to survive. Here’s a little peek into the darker world of butterflies.


Butterflies don’t just drink nectar from flowers. Many of them consume a whole host of revolting things, from poop to urine to decaying animal flesh. They’ll even drink the tears of reptiles to get some much-needed sodium.

Scientists can use these less savory preferences to attract and study butterflies: Researchers trying to attract tropical Skippers will spit on a piece of tissue and put it on the ground, a method known as the Ahrenholz technique [PDF]. Butterflies are attracted to the saliva-soaked tissue because it looks like bird poop, and they stick around because it provides them with sodium and other nutrients. Meanwhile, their presence allows scientists to photograph and collect them.


A Harvester butterfly. Image credit: khteWisconsin via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Don’t worry, you can visit your garden without risking attack from a swarm of predatory butterflies. But some caterpillars kill for a living. Take the ominously named harvester: This North American butterfly lays its eggs on colonies of woolly aphids, and the caterpillars grow up snacking on the aphids, sometimes protecting themselves with the corpses of their victims.

Then there’s the moth butterfly of Asia and Australia. Protected by tough outer shells, its caterpillars live in ant nests and eat their larvae. But when the caterpillars become butterflies, they’re suddenly soft and vulnerable. They beat a hasty retreat, shedding extra wing scales that stick to their ant pursuers.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Say you want to help butterflies, so you plant a beautiful garden full of flowers. Soon, butterflies of all kinds are fluttering around the blossoms. Success! But wait—if you don’t have exactly the right plants, those butterflies won’t have babies. They’ll be genetic dead ends.

That’s because some butterfly caterpillars can only eat the leaves of one plant, or one small group of plants. The Karner blue caterpillar, for example, chows down on just one species: wild blue lupine. The monarch butterfly caterpillar eats only the members of a group of plants called the milkweeds. The Hessel’s hairstreak consumes Atlantic white cedar, which often grows in threatened wetlands.

A caterpillar’s food plants are called host plants—they’re the only species that can host the right dinner party for a growing caterpillar. Once the caterpillars turn to butterflies, they may visit many different plants and drink their nectar. But if they don’t eventually find the right host plants, they can’t have babies, because the female caterpillars will only lay eggs on plants that can serve as hosts. To thrive, butterflies need access to both delicious nectar sources and host plants.


Many members of a butterfly family called the Lycaenids, or gossamer-wings, rely on ants to take care of their babies. The caterpillars use special chemicals to attract ants. In some species, such as the Alcon blue, those ants carry the babies back to their nest, and vigorously protect them from parasites, sometimes at the expense of their own kind. This isn’t always an ideal arrangement for the ants—the caterpillars may provide nutrients, but some of them will snack on ant larvae. To fight back, some ants slowly alter their communication chemicals over time so that they no longer match the caterpillar’s signals—effectively changing the locks on their home. The caterpillars must evolve and keep up or risk being ignored completely.

Once they become adults, the relationship can get even more twisted. One species of butterfly, Adeloptypa annulifera, uses ant babysitters, and once it grows up, it steals food from those same ants. It even looks a lot like an ant. Sneaky.


Mark Pellegrinivia Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 2.5

Butterflies can get pretty big. Some Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterflies have a foot-long wingspan. In contrast, the western pygmy blue has a maximum wingspan of about three-quarters of an inch. Perched on a human finger, it looks ridiculously tiny, even when spreading its wings to their full glorious extent.


Butterflies come in a rainbow of hues. But some of them have such understated colors that you might think they’re moths.

Plenty of butterflies are gray or brown. The gray hairstreak is, well, gray. Arctic butterflies, such as this Jutta arctic, are speckled brown, and are capable of living in remote cold places such as the tundra. The evocatively named dreamy duskywing is also totally brown. Their patterns are lovely if you’re a fan of earth tones.

But the ultimate colorless butterflies are just see-through. Really. The wings of some species, such as the glasswinged butterfly, have minute structural characteristics that cause light to pass right through them.


Butterflies look at the world in a totally different way than we do. Their eyes aren't adapted to see as many fine details as we can. On the other hand, they can perceive colors outside of our visual range, such as ultraviolet. Many of them make ultraviolet pigments in their wings—so they have patterns that are invisible to human eyes. They may use them to help find the right mate.


Birds, lizards, spiders, and other creatures hunt butterflies. Given the choice, a butterfly would prefer to be bitten on its wings instead of a more valuable part, like, say, its face. (If a predator bites a butterfly on its wings, the insect can still fly even with big chunks missing.)

So how can a butterfly encourage a predator to bite its wings and not its head? Some species have false heads on their wings, right next to their butts. These fake heads are a tempting target for spiders and other hunters—especially when a butterfly points its fake head up and wiggles the “antennae.” The predator bites the false head, and the butterfly escapes with its real noggin intact, able to fly another day.


Their heads aren’t the only weapons that butterflies wield. Some caterpillars absorb poisons from their food plants and use them against predators. Monarch butterflies, for example, collect milkweed toxins to make themselves less tasty to birds. And remember those foot-wide Queen Alexandra’s birdwings? They use the same tactic by munching on a particular toxic vine.


And here’s another weapon. When swallowtail butterfly caterpillars are threatened, they stick out a colorful stinky organ called an osmeterium. It looks a little like a snake’s tongue and serves to make them seem a lot less tasty to other insects. If you play video games, this might sound familiar: The swallowtail's defensive practice inspired the Pokémon Caterpie, which has a permanently visible osmeterium and defends itself with a powerful odor.

All photos via iStock except where noted.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]