Rats trained to search for survivors could start humanitarian missions next year

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Rats have a rather bad reputation throughout the world, vectors of diseases and linked to unsanitary conditions in general. They are often depicted as aggressive, but instances of biting only result from situations where they feel unsafe. Moreover, rats and humans share the same state of harm aversion, in an area of ​​the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. They gladly help their fellows in difficulty. A team from the non-profit organization APOPO recently trained rats to search for earthquake survivors, like rescue dogs. But the rat, being smaller and lighter, can squeeze into places that are too narrow or unstable for the dog. The research team is planning, in partnership with a search and rescue team, to deploy their animals by next year to Turkey – a country prone to frequent earthquakes.

The story of APOPO, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, began when Bart Weetjens, the organization’s founder, wondered if the rodents he used to keep as pets could learn to find anti-personnel mines and other explosives. Bart then consults Professor Ron Verhagen, rodent expert at the Department of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Antwerp. Together they select the giant African rat (Cricetomys Gambianus) as the most suitable candidate for the mine detection task. Its longevity (up to eight years) and its origin (African) are the most important factors. After a few years of experimenting with learning and training methods, in 2000 the team established offices and training facilities in Tanzania, under a collaborative agreement with Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) and the Tanzania People’s Defense Forces.

This organization therefore trains these giant African rats to detect landmines or tuberculosis using their extraordinary sense of smell. Currently, they are deployed in 5 affected countries around the world. In fact, research indicates that APOPO improves clinic detection rates by up to 40%. Rats are trained through operant conditioning procedures where a sound (a “click”) is paired with a palatable food reinforcement.

Their potential is further extended with this new program, leading them to search for survivors in the rubble or disaster areas following earthquakes in particular. The innovative project is led by research scientist Dr Donna Kean, from Glasgow.

From HeroRAT to RescueRAT

It should be noted that APOPO’s Landmine Detector Rats are too light to detonate landmines and very fast to find them, making them a perfect “tool” for speeding up detection and clearance, especially when they are integrated into conventional demining methods. We call them HeroRATs. The sense of smell is the most developed and most used sense in rats, they also have an extraordinarily high number of genes devoted to olfactory detection. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, APOPO is studying detection rats as a diagnostic tool for tuberculosis. The results show that rats can check 100 sputum samples from suspected TB patients in 20 minutes, which could take a lab technician up to four days. Any suspect samples, identified by the rats, are then rechecked at APOPO’s laboratory using WHO-approved confirmatory tests. Confirmed results are sent back to clinics, which oversee patient counseling and treatment.

In addition to this operational use, APOPO conducts basic research using the methods of analytical chemistry, learning theory and ethology to clarify the variables that influence rat odor detection and to develop and expand humanitarian applications at their training center in Morogoro, Tanzania. This is how these rats are trained, like rescue dogs, to find humans in rubble. But the advantage lies in their small size and agility, as well as the fact that they do not bind to a single trainer, like dogs. It is therefore easier, subsequently, to deploy them in disaster areas, with rescue professionals.

The team, with more than 20 years of training in mine detection, has developed a training program based in particular on ethology. In an interview with the magazine Science, Dr. Donna Kean explains their methodology. At first, the rats learn to return to their starting point when they hear a “beep”, and are then rewarded. In a second step, they are trained to shoot a small ball attached to their backpack, linked to a micro-switch triggering a beep. The latter represents a signal for rescuers. When the rats did this reliably, the trainers introduced a human target. The goal is for the rat to walk towards this fake victim, shoot the bullet, then return to where it was released when it hears the beep.

Dr. Donna Kean says: “ Training began in August 2021 and is ongoing. So far, all nine rats have mastered stages one and two; six reliably learned the entire sequence. There are many individual differences in personality, skills and abilities “.

A rat receives a reward of powdered pellets mixed with avocado and banana using a syringe. © APOPO/SWINS

These rats will only be deployed following a canine team. They will be from several entry points, and scientists estimate that they could move away between 10 and 30 m from the initial point, which represents a large area for research in the rubble. They will also have a backpack with a microphone, light and camera. The training site of these rats makes it possible to reproduce real situations, with heaps of debris and various household objects. Dr. Donna Kean posted several photographs of these rats and a video of training.

There remains one last scenario, which it is not possible to test today, the reaction of the rat to a corpse. Indeed, they are trained to find living people, but not dead people. Nevertheless, the smells are very different between a corpse and a living person. It is therefore likely that the rat only stops for living people, the smell for which it was trained.

Finally, Dr. Donna Kean emphasizes: “ There can be problems if people are afraid of rats or animals. But wherever they are introduced and used for this purpose, there can be awareness campaigns to let people know it can happen. […] There may be a sound coming from the backpack that potentially says, ‘I’m a RescueRat, I’m here to help you’ “.

University collaboration for real impacts on the ground

APOPO relies on partnerships with universities to develop new applications to serve local companies. In 2018, APOPO partnered with the University of Manchester, in a joint research effort, to further explore odor detection of different diseases.

For example, for the RescueRAT project, APOPO collaborates with the Eindhoven University of Technology. A team of researchers and students develops a backpack with technology for survivor-seeking rats. Thanks to the recent development, the RescueRATs can not only locate the victims, but also allow two-way communication with the survivor and more precise location of their position in the debris to facilitate the rescue operation. APOPO is always looking for financing, because to allow a rat to be fully operational, it takes an average of 6000 euros.

rescue rat
Dr. Donna Kean with Jo the rat. © APOPO/SWNS

It’s important to note that unlike much animal-related research, APOPO’s training follows all ethical standards and the rats “get regular playtime and a retirement package” when they can no longer work.

The team hopes to be able to do full-scale tests by next year, in partnership with a search and rescue group called GEA, based in Turkey, a country prone to frequent earthquakes. Overall, APOPO’s work demonstrates the importance of behavioral research and how its direct application can bring new insights to many fields.

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