This is a baby rat in a minuscule harness somewhere in Tanzania. He's got his nose in the air, but he's not looking for cheese. He's actually sniffing out deadly landmines.
It takes a pair of trained humans a full day to clear a 2000 square foot minefield. But if they work with a pair of rats, which are light enough to tread on the surface without triggering mines below, they can do it in just two hours. That's why APOPO, a Dutch organization working in Tanzania, is training baby rats to become mine-sniffers that are as effective as they are adorable. They're more efficient to train than dogs, and they've already proven their stuff in neighboring Mozambique, where they've successfully cleared patches of land.
The rats start their training when they're just four weeks old, early enough for them to overcome their natural fear of humans. They're conditioned to associate a clicking sound with a food treat, and then trained to distinguish the scent of TNT. When they correctly identify explosives in tests, the click is sounded and they're rewarded with a bit of banana. After some nine months of rigorous daily training, the sniffer rats are ready for work in the field.
The rodents are also being used to help screen samples for tuberculosis in Tanzanian hospitals, where lab tests are often only 60% accurate. In the future, members of APOPO explain, rats could be used to sniff out narcotics or locate people trapped after catastrophes. It's just like that old book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: If you train a mouse to save lives by sniffing out mines, he'll want to learn how to save lives in a whole bunch of other really impressive and adorable ways, too. [Telegraph via Atlantic]