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The Monitor, ep. 13--Colossal Squid, Narwhals and Improvisational Robotics

Scientists dissect the world's largest invertebrate; narwhals unseat polar bears as the most endangered mammal in the Arctic; introduced lizards underwent superfast evolution; and a new way to program robots that encourages them to improvise solutions to real-world problems

Created, written & designed by John Pavlus / Screencasts produced by Smashcut Media / Music by Jeff Alvarez

Check out previous episodes of The Monitor. Subscribe to this video podcast via iTunes or RSS

Background on this week's stories:

#1. CSI: Colossal Squid Investigation
Discovery, Reuters and Newsweek all covered the dissection of the largest specimen ever caught of the largest invertebrate on Earth.

The BBC and The Guardian homed in on the squid's basketball-size eyes, and their coverage includes some pretty compelling video.

The squid in question was caught by a commercial fishing crew in New Zealand in February 2007. Unlike the giant squid, no colossal squid has ever been photographed in its natural habitat.

#2. An inconvenient (and uncute) truth
Conservationists often champion a single, highly visible species in order to convince the public to preserve the ecosystem on which it depends, even if their primary goal is the preservation of the ecosystem itself. Of these species, known as charismatic megafauna, polar bears are a textbook example. (As we discovered at a convention of climate change skeptics, polar bears are a flash point for those who oppose the regulation of carbon emissions, as well.)

Only now it appears that they aren't the most threatened species in the Arctic. That dubious honor belongs to the narwhal, reports a team of international researchers in a paper in the journal Ecological Applications. (It's part of a larger package on the impact of climate change on the Arctic.)

LiveScience, National Geographic and ABC News have the story.

#3. The impatient gene
It's long been known that evolution sometimes happens very quickly—as in the development of resistance to antibiotics in bacteria—but the discovery that lizards on two islands in Croatia evolved significant differences in body type and social structure in the span of fewer than forty years is shocking enough to warrant publication in a top-shelf journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

#4. How to make a smart robot
One way to teach a robot to use a hammer is to stuff its computer brain with the specific size and shape of a hammer and explicit instructions about how to wield it. Another way is to teach the robot something about the essence of hammering—it requires a longish object with a flat end suitable for banging on things—and then let it improvise ways to use just about any object to accomplish that goal.

The latter approach has been adopted by a research group at the University of Osnabruck in Osnabruck, Germany. (Original press release here)

The "robot" whose ramblings bookend this segment is comedian Eugene Mirman.

The Monitor Series
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