New Innovations for the Mine Detection Rats
Last week was World Innovation and Creativity day. In this spirit, APOPO is carrying out innovative research to investigate alternative ways that the mine detection rats can show us that they have found a landmine. The goal is to reduce ambiguity in the rats’ signals, which will make training and mine detection more efficient.
The rats are clever creatures and we are training them to pull a ball fixed onto a collar when they find a target (such as the tea egg containing TNT pictured above). When the rat pulls the ball on the current prototype, a beep is sounded that clearly signals to the handler that the rat has found a target. Future prototypes of the collar might enable an LED to light up when the rat pulls the ball, or it could conceivably communicate a wireless signal to a handheld device carried by the trainer. In the future, this device could even be used for detection of other odor targets.
Popaul has just opened its eyes! It is still living with its mother, and relies on her for milk and comfort, but is now strong enough to meet its trainer. Popaul’s trainer is spending a lot of time interacting with it and exposing it to many different sights, sounds, and smells. This process, called « socialization, » ensures that Popaul will not be startled when it is handled by humans or when it encounters something new. Socialization training, which starts as soon as baby rats open their eyes at the age of four weeks or so, will make Popaul easier to train and help meet the challenges that it will face later in its career.
This week Popaul and its trainer took a car ride, played in the grass, listened to music, and met some new people. Though these are fun experiences for humans, for a young rat they can be frightening at first, but Popaul is quickly becoming comfortable. After about one week of socialization, Popaul will be ready to leave its mother, learn to be relaxed around the various stimuli present in the work environment, trust its trainers, and be more conducive to the remaining stages of the HeroRAT training process.
Welcome to the world, Popaul! It is celebration time in APOPO’s rat kennels today for the birth of baby Popaul and its two siblings. Popaul belongs to the species Cricetomys gambianus, commonly known as the African giant pouched rat, which are often born in litters of 2 or 3. APOPO’s breeding program ensures that prospective parents of our future heroes are carefully handpicked to deliver healthy, happy and high-quality rat babies. A successful breeding program increases the likelihood of delivering excellent HeroRATs to detect landmines and tuberculosis.
APOPO’s early experiences demonstrated that rats that grow up in the organization’s kennels are easier to train and are more effective scent detectors. Since many rats are needed for mine action and TB detection operations, APOPO’s research and development department is constantly working on ways to optimize the breeding program. Before placing rat couples in the breeding cages, the APOPO staff closely monitors the acceptance behavior of the animals in the introduction cage. Female rats either reject or accept a prospective mate in this cage and in cases of clear acceptance, the rat couples are placed together in the breeding cages.
Crucial information such as the best timing for the female rats and the fertility period of the male rats go a long way in improving the productivity of the breeding colony. APOPO’s breeding program also ensures optimal care, feeding and medical attention to aid the overall welfare of the animals and subsequently improve the quality of rats available for training.