'It's quite unusual. They are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments,' explained scientist Dr. Donna Kean.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 7, 2022. It has since been updated.
An innovative project is training rats to send them into earthquake debris wearing tiny backpacks equipped with location trackers and microphones to locate trapped earthquake survivors. Spearheaded by 33-year-old research scientist Dr. Donna Kean from Glasgow, the project is called "Hero Rats." It has so far trained seven rats to navigate disaster sites to track people stuck in rubble to help them communicate with relief workers and get rescued in time. At the moment, over a training period that reportedly takes only two weeks, scientists equip the rats with homemade prototype backpacks containing a microphone and send them into mock debris.
I was interviewed for Science news by the excellent @RobinKD about our work training African giant pouched rats to find trapped humans as part of our Search & Rescue project @HeroRATshttps://t.co/Z2NtPNjQ3l— Dr Donna Kean (@donnaeilidhkean) December 17, 2021
According to Wales Online, during real earthquakes, specialist backpacks containing microphones, video gear, and location trackers will be used to allow rescue teams to communicate with survivors. Kean—who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before pursuing an MA at the University of Kent and a Ph.D. at Stirling University—has been based in Morogoro, Tanzania, East Africa, for a year working with the nonprofit organization APOPO for the "Hero Rats" project. The rodents will be given a chance to work in the field when they are sent to Turkey, which is prone to earthquakes, to reportedly work with a search and rescue team, GAE.
Although Kean was interested in primate behavior, she was fascinated by how quickly rats can be trained. Describing rats as "sociable" creatures, she said it is a misconception that they are unhygienic and believes the work being done will save lives. A total of 170 rats are being trained for projects, including landmines and TB. It is hoped that they can sniff out brucellosis, an infectious disease that impacts livestock. Given their nimble and agile nature, rats never set off a landmine, which makes them perfect for rescue efforts in disaster zones.
I train these clever creatures to save victims trapped in collapsed buildings after earthquakes. We kit them out with a rat backpack, and train them to trigger a switch when they find a victim & come back for a tasty treat 🐀#herosnotpests #science #weirdjobs #WomenInSTEM pic.twitter.com/728IQv70NX— Dr Donna Kean (@donnaeilidhkean) May 26, 2022
"Rats would be able to get into small spaces to get to victims buried in the rubble. We have not been in a real situation yet, we have got a mock debris site," said Kean. "When we get the new backpacks, we will be able to hear from where we are based and where the rat is, inside the debris. We have the potential to speak to victims through the rat." The rodents are trained to respond to a beep and return to the base. "A colleague is a seamstress, she makes the backpacks and she's very talented. We are getting custom-made backpacks, which will have video recorders, microphones and a location transmitter," Kean revealed.
APOPO's Innovation Team are developing new avenues for our HeroRATs to save lives & our environment with their nose, including detecting illegally trafficked wildlife and trapped victims for Search & Rescue. 😃— APOPO Science (@ApopoScience) May 19, 2022
Follow us for updates and developments! #zoology #animalscience pic.twitter.com/lDRmjQ434Z
"It's quite unusual. They are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments," she continued. "They are perfect for search and rescue-type work. They can live off anything. They are very good at surviving in different environments, which just shows how suitable they are for search and rescue work." Although dogs have been used for similar purposes as they are known to be able to sense seismic waves, rats have an advantage over canines due to their small size and flexibility.
APOPO is training HeroRATs for Search & Rescue. The rats have a great sense of smell, and can move through small spaces to search for survivors. The basic behavioral sequence is: search for victim, pull ball to communicate victim has been found, then return to trainer for reward. pic.twitter.com/gAaBj8zMB5— APOPO (@HeroRATs) April 5, 2022
"They are very trainable, the first stage is to train them to come back to the base point—they respond to a beep. There is a misconception they are dirty and unhygienic," said Kean. "They are well looked after with us, they are sociable animals. We hope it will be implemented, we are partnered with a search and rescue team in Turkey. It would just be a case of as soon as an earthquake happens, arranging the transport. We are the only organization working with this species, there are other organizations training dogs. We hope it will save lives, the results are really promising."