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The Daily Need

Photo: Rats on a mission

Mine detection rat

Photo: Sylvain Piraux, 2005 Tanzania. Courtesy: APOPO

A footlong rodent in a harness is ready to clear the world of landmines. Or at least, for now, parts of Africa.

Like dogs, giant African pouched rats are smart and cooperative, and have a highly developed sense of smell, plus they work for peanuts. These natives of sub-Saharan Africa are tame and can be quickly trained. Unlike dogs, they don’t bond with humans, so they can be handled by more than one trainer. It’s not a kamikaze mission for these HeroRATS, as they are called, since their light weight makes them highly unlikely to set off mines. Once a rat detects the scent of a mine, it scratches furiously at the dirt, a trainer marks the area, and the rat keeps moving.

APOPO, an organization affiliated with Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania, trains the rodents to detect the scent of TNT using a click and reward system. At the age of four weeks, the rats are taught to associate a clicking sound with a food treat. As they progress, they must perform increasingly complicated tasks before being rewarded with a banana or nuts.

In the field, the rats are harnessed and attached to wires, and they scamper sniffing across a field, covering a demarcated search area.

The pouched rats (so-called because of pouches where they store food) have so far worked in actual minefields in Mozambique. And, in what could prove a cheap and effective method for fighting disease, APOPO is also training them to detect tuberculosis in lab samples.

For more, visit APOPO’s website, or check out the Frontline World documentary from 2007.

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  • Yosh

    That is really cool, I’m glad the world is finding new and safer ways to help make countries deal with the after effects of wars and the means by which it happens does not endanger or place any individual or animal in a high risk situation.

  • Arffy

    …is this where the saying “ratted out” originated?!

  • shrink wrap machine

    Oh!…that’s great helpful, it’s so right to me! Million thanks for the article,

  • Pauline Mchugh

    There are a whole bunch of these down in Washington, don’t need much training either.

  • Chad

    Why is the Photo of the Day 5 years old? Did no one take pictures today? Or in the past 5 years?

  • Jerome Potts

    This just gave me an idea : you attach a mine-detecting device to a critter and let it run its business, unattended. The device, when triggered by an encounter with the substance of a land mine, sends a GPS report that can be followed later. Caveat : the device has to be really small while having all these features.

  • Oro

    Maybe they didn’t want to pay for a reporter to travel to Tanzania just for a picture?

  • Juanmartinez

    cool rats found mines”)