Rats Can Help People!

These intelligent animals are learning to navigate through debris.

Jul 19, 2022
Rats Can Help People! | These intelligent animals are learning to navigate through debris.

Search and rescue (SAR) teams are often accompanied by man’s best friend. A dog's superior sense of smell can be critical to finding survivors among rubble and earthquake debris. But now a new furry animal is joining the ranks of SAR, and it's the rat. 

Newsweek reports that rats are being trained to assist search and rescue teams after an earthquake hits. The rats are adorned with tiny backpacks equipped with microphones and are being sent through rubble and debris to find and come in contact with survivors. 

Rats are being trained to find survivors 
These rescue rats are being trained by Dr. Donna Kean, a researcher from Glasgow, Scotland who has been working with rats for years. Kean originally was interested in primates according to Newsweek, but her fascination with small rodents grew when she saw how quickly rats seemed to learn and how well they can be trained.

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Today, Kean is training 170 rats alongside nonprofit organization APOPO in Tanzania, East Africa for their project called HeroRATs. According to POPE's website, their rats are not only being trained to search through the debris, but also to find landmines and even detect tuberculosis. APOPO’s studies found that their rats have sped up the process for humans to help people in dire situations. 

Now headed to Turkey to work with a search and rescue unit 
The rats have yet to face a real-life disaster but the rats will soon be sent to Turkey, an earthquake-prone region, to work with the country’s search and rescue team, GAE. At the moment, the rats are learning to make their way through controlled earthquake simulations and reach people through the debris according to Newsweek. 

The learning took two weeks for Kean’s rats. In an interview with Science Focus, Kean says that the rats learned through positive reinforcement “to train them on a basic sequence of behavior. So, here it’s to search for a human, indicate to us that they’ve found them, and then return to where they were released from.”

Backpacks carried by the rats are used to communicate with survivors
The rats first started their training in a small empty room and gradually moved on to increasingly complex situations until they came close to an actual collapsed building site. That’s where they find the survivors and the potential to talk to the victims through the backpacks fitted to the rats, according to the interview. 

Currently, the prototype for the backpacks is home made by one of their employees, a seamstress, and is made to hold a microphone as well as location trackers according to DailyMail UK.

The rats are the real focus though. As Kean puts it, “they are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments. They are perfect for search and rescue-type work,” according to the news site, quoting Kean. 

"We have the potential to speak to victims through the rat," she continues, knowing that these little rodents are on their way to making a big difference. 

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Yael has a passion for research and discovery and devoted her studies to science. She is fascinated by anything technology related and how it can improve people’s lives. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, swimming and storytelling.