Danielle Lee has a message for the world: rats are smarter than you think. One day, they may even save you from being blown up. Lee, a biologist and postdoc at Cornell, studies the natural history and behavior of African giant pouched rats, a type of large rodent native to sub-Saharan Africa that can sniff out bombs.
Lee, a TED Fellow, gave a talk describing her research at the recent TED Conference in Vancouver.
At the moment, the basic details of the rat’s biology are still a mystery. That’s what she’s trying to change. “By studying their biology, we can make better decisions on how to train them,” Lee tells me before her talk.
The rats are also hard to breed in captivity. Once scientists know more about the animals–whether they’re solitary or group-living, what the reproductive cycle of females are, and so on–breeding will become easier.
Rats are ideal for bomb-sniffing, because they’re low to the ground and have an amazing sense of smell. “So much of how they communicate is through their nose,” says Lee, who also blogs as the Urban Scientist for Scientific American.
When the rats detect a landmine, they scratch at the ground–their scratches aren’t heavy enough to trigger the landmines, however.
The pouch rats are to care for, eat almost anything, and live up to eight years. Like dogs, they can be trained with positive reinforcement (clicker training begins soon after weaning). But rats don’t develop attachments to their trainers, making them even more useful than dogs; they can easily be transferred to new owners and countries.
Lee is currently working with APOPO, a nonprofit in Tanzania that trains the African giant pouched rat to sniff out landmines. Since its launch in 2000, APOPO has used the rats to find 2,400 landmines in neighboring Mozambique.
During her visits to Tanzania, Lee follows and traps pouch rats in the wild. Back in the lab, she conducts behavior tests, examining social and exploratory behavior, as well as the rats’ reactions to unfamiliar situations.
Lee’s work could eventually make it possible to implement selective breeding, so that only the pouch rats best suited to bomb-sniffing undergo the 8 to 12 months of training that all of APOPO’s rats currently go through.
“In the future, we could breed an entirely new field of domestic service animals,” said Lee in her talk.