Will African Rodents Join Hunt for IEDs?

By Eric Beidel
In Tanzania, rats are sniffing out landmines.

Eventually they may be able to help the U.S. Army deal with the deadly problem of improvised explosive devices.

The Army Research Office recently awarded a $740,000 grant to Oklahoma State University zoology professor Alex Ophir to find out which rat personalities are the best for detecting bombs. Ophir and his team will observe African giant-pouched rats in the wild and perform tests to determine how trainable they are and what traits they display in various settings. Researchers eventually want to identify genetic signatures early enough so they can tell from birth which rats will be good at which tasks.

“We really know very little about these animals, yet they are being used in very impressive applications,” Ophir said.

Ophir has a partner organization in APOPO, a Dutch acronym that means Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development. The nonprofit has been training rats to detect landmines in Tanzania. During a trip to observe the group’s work, the professor watched rodents attached to harnesses zigzag down roads and dig at the dirt when they came upon buried explosives. African giant-pouched rats are not heavy enough to cause a device to detonate, and they have twice as much brain tissue devoted to smell as similar rodents.

But many of these landmines were buried years ago. The situation in warzones such as Afghanistan is different. U.S. troops must beware of homemade bombs in hostile territory where additional threats such as snipers are present. Ophir’s research will investigate how well the rats would perform in dangerous environments.

Dogs have been used to find explosives in theater, but canines are not looked upon favorably in Muslim cultures. “When you’re trying to win hearts and minds, trotting something that’s offensive to them down their streets is probably not the best way,” Ophir said.

Covert operations also will be easier with rats, because they don’t bark, he added.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology

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