After DARPA announced,
somewhat sheepishly, that after $19 billion and six years of research, they had concluded that the best bomb-detecting device is a dog, we got to thinking: what other instances are there in which you’d reach not for a traditional tool, but for an animal? These eight examples range from the medical to the military to the culinary fields, but all have one thing in common: there’s no better tool for the job than an animal.
Click to launch a tour of some amazing, and amazingly useful, animals.
Dolphins of War
The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP), based in San Diego, CA, began in 1960 when the military examined the Pacific White-sided Dolphin, trying to figure out the secret to its hydrodynamic body with the aim of improving torpedo performance. (Given 1960s technology, the NMMP never managed to solve the puzzle.) That later expanded to other marine mammals of the Pacific, especially other dolphins and California sea lions, which led to the discovery that these animals are not only trainable but fairly reliable even while untethered in the open ocean. NMMP has been a controversial program, but the Navy insists that the program complies with all available statutes, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act. The NMMP also states that, despite rumors, marine mammals have never and will never be used as weapons themselves. No attack dolphins. So what does the NMMP do now? Dolphins are used as undersea mine detectors, even finding more than 100 in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War in 2003. Dolphins and sea lions are used as sentries to find and alert the military to unauthorized swimmers and divers, and sea lions are used to retrieve objects from the ocean depths (at this they outperform human and robotic swimmers by a fair margin).
Mites in Your Cheese
Cheese is weird already. The fermentation of milk products that leads to our seemingly infinite varieties of cheeses is a process of controlled rot, thanks to friendly bacteria. But this cheese, known as mimolette (sometimes boule de lille or vieux Hollande), has a rather…bigger friend. The cheese mite. Cheese mites are in the same family as less-desirable beasts like lice and ticks, but in the case of mimolette, they’re invaluable. Cheese mites are introduced intentionally to mimolette, where they burrow into the rind of the cheese, gorging on it (not so different from you or I!) and finally dying after two weeks, leaving behind a dusty skeleton (well, that’s a little different.). Hardcore cheesemongers believe that mimolette gains flavor, aroma, and especially its hard grey rind from the cheese mites–though the mites are illegal in a few other countries due to grossness. Mimolette isn’t the only cheese to use mites, though it is one of the best-known.
Truffles, of the black French variety from Perigord as well as the white Italian version, are renowned for both their enticing flavor and aroma, and the heart-attack-inducing prices they can bring. Considering they can fetch thousands of dollars a pound, making truffles one of the most expensive natural objects on the planet, you might expect that science has devised all kinds of amazing, high-tech ways to find the pungent mushrooms beneath the ground. But you’d be wrong. The two main tools used to find truffles? Pigs and dogs. Truffle hogs are have been the traditional truffle-hunting tool of choice for hundreds of years–their strong sense of smell and apparent deep love of truffles makes them ideal tools for the job. Studies have indicated that a chemical in mature truffles is also found in the musk of male pigs and boars when in heat, so sows will make a beeline for any mature truffles they can find. But despite the romantic image of a Frenchman walking his truffle pig through the forests of Perigord, pigs haven’t really been in use for quite a few decades. Dr. Charles Lefevre, president and founder of New World Truffieres and the Oregon Truffle Festival, as well as one of the foremost truffle experts in North America, notes that there are quite a few reasons pigs have been replaced by man’s best friend. Aside from the basic problem that pigs, unlike dogs, will try to eat the truffles before a human can snatch them up, “pigs don’t have all that much stamina,” says Lefevre, “and they’re less inclined to try to please their handlers.” Then there’s the modern-day oddness of transporting a pig around. “Truffle-hunting is always a surreptitious activity–you don’t want other people to know about it,” says Lefevre, who compares it to hunting for hundred-dollar bills in the forest. “It’s a lot harder to transport a pig around, and people will know what you’re doing if you’re walking a pig.” Dogs have taken prominence in truffle-hunting–they have to be trained, unlike pigs, but it doesn’t seem especially difficult. One breed, the lagotto romagnolo (which is related to poodles and water dogs), has been long bred for truffle-hunting, though the Oregon Truffle Festival offers training for all sorts of dogs. Essentially, you just have to imprint the dog with the smell, and reward them for finding truffles. “People use all sorts of breeds,” says Lefevre. “The individual dog is much more important.” But why, in 2011, are we still using dogs? Surely we can plant truffles, or at the very least use machines to find them, right? The problem, says Lefevre, is that truffles are “like a tomato: they take a long time to ripen, and they ripen at different times.” And an unripe–“immature,” in truffle-speak–truffle is “worthless in cooking.” So the dog’s role “isn’t really to find truffles, but to pick the truffles that are ripe.” There are some artificial sensors that can detect the chemical compounds in truffles, but they’re nowhere near as effective as dogs, which can calculate location based on wind patterns and strength of scent, and, best of all, take you right to the site of the truffle. Mechanical devices are used like metal detectors–not nearly so efficient.
What’s the best way to get rid of an animal? To ask Dan Frankian, owner of Hawkeye, the answer is…another animal. Frankian is a licensed falconer and pest control expert, with four offices in the Toronto area. His main customers are city governments and airports, and they go to him for two main reasons: his methods of getting rid of animals (most often birds like seagulls and geese, but also skunks, beavers, raccoons, and more) are frequently more humane as well as more effective than other methods. And his methods rely heavily on raptors–birds of prey–and other animals. Pests aren’t just annoying; as we all learned from the Hudson River emergency airplane landing, birds can be a legitimate hazard, especially overpopulated species like gulls and geese. Parks and bodies of water can be swiftly polluted by geese, which excrete more than two pounds a day, and they often cause auto accidents. Modern methods of ridding areas of these pests often fall back on killing en masse with nets, which is kind of unpopular and gruesome, or using mechanical devices, often audio-based, to scare pests away. Frankian does, in a Bond-like way, have a rare “license to kill” from the Canadian government, but says it’s more effective to scare. “You can kill all of them, if you want,” he says. “They won’t learn. Scaring them is faster.” Frankian has an arsenal of more than 100 raptors, mostly hawks and falcons but also including a few owls and even three bald eagles (which he refers to as “the big bang in bird control”), as well as five dogs. He demonstrated his technique with Clara, a five-year-old Harris hawk, in this slideshow. Basically, he stakes out territory, flying the hawk around the entire area to be monitored (in this case a gull-infested landfill). “This basically tells every gull out there that this is no-no territory,” he says. Once a gull sees a raptor acting this way, marking its territory and even hunting a bird or two, it’s unlikely to come back–whereas a simple kill trap would remove gulls but not discourage them from coming back.
Human innovations are pretty good at replacing some of our senses, especially sight and hearing, with mechanical or electronic equipment. But one sense in which natural, organic versions outstrip human inventions by a laughable degree is that of scent. The Pentagon recently announced that after six years and a whopping $19 billion in spending, some of the world’s best scientists and engineers concluded that the best bomb-sniffing device is…a trained dog. The most sophisticated detectors ever invented can detect maybe 50% of IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. But a simple soldier accompanied by a trained dog can detect 80%. Dogs proved so efficient, in fact, that the Pentagon shifted this team’s focus from detecting bombs to simply disrupting them–radio jamming to mess with the frequencies used to detonate bombs, aerial sensors to scan bomb-heavy areas, that kind of thing. Dogs are ideal for this kind of work in the field, thanks to their physical endurance, easy trainability, and eagerness to please their handlers. But they’re not the only animals found to be far better at detecting explosives than anything we humans can come up with. In Israel, bomb-sniffing mice are being tested in airports, and early tests showed them detecting bombs 100% of the time.
So, this is a contentious one, and not universally true–mostly, it depends on who you ask, and for what reason. But animal testing is a requirement for many many procedures, especially in the U.S., ranging from research to cosmetics. Most animal testing is done using mice and rats, the vast majority being mice, estimated at around 20 million a year in the U.S. alone. That’s largely due to their size, cheap price, ease of handling, and ability to reproduce quickly. Their relatively short lifespan also enables scientists to see effects through many stages of an animal’s life at a reasonable rate. (We also should not ignore that mice and rats are helpful politically–there are no federal rules mandating the reporting of quantities of mice and rats used in testing, unlike, say, dogs and non-human primates.) Animal testing is used, in broad categories, for research, xenotransplantation (the transplanting of organs from one species to another, as in this recent prediction), education, toxicology, and cosmetics testing, the latter of which is by far the most controversial. Most countries and other governing bodies have strict rules about the use of animals in scientific testing, encouraging alternatives (though the emphasis on alternatives varies from country to country). Opponents to animal testing note the major steps alternatives have taken in recent years–there are entire schools dedicated to it. There are two main alternatives in use and development now. Computer simulations, somewhat cutely called “in silico,” is a riff on “in vivo” (live animal testing) and “in vitro,” the latter of which uses cell cultures that are grown rather than born. But, say proponents of animal testing, computer simulations rely on data that already exists, and are limited in ways that live animals are not. Roger Morris, head of the biomedical sciences department at Kings College London, uses Parkinson’s as an example: “Part of this disease is a dopamine deficiency in the neurons, but the underlying cause is a complex set of interactive problems, that probably involves an inflammatory or autoimmune component. Thus we need to understand the interaction between two very complex bodily systems – the brain, and the immune system, to understand the defects causing this multi–tissue, multi–step disease. We can’t study that in tissue culture of individual cells.” Morris says that 90 percent of his work is done in vitro or in silico, but there are instances in which there is no adequate replacement for an animal–not yet, at least. And for the time being, biomedical scientists overwhelmingly feel that animal testing is “essential to the advancement of biomedical science.” At a symposium earlier this year, researcher Stuart Zola of Emory University defended animal testing by noting that treatments for complex, dangerous diseases, like hepatitis C, diabetes, and polio, require animal testing, and that it is “heavily regulated.” Animal testing is much more prominent in the U.S. than in Europe, where it is heavily discouraged. Europe is also more proactive in funding the development of alternatives, which opponents of animal testing maintain is a major stumbling block to their efficacy. In the U.S., it is required on many levels, and many decry the bureaucratic stumbling blocks in place to keep the system the way it is.
The Nose Knows
Sniffing isn’t restricted to bombs. As it turns out, the schnozzes (scientific terminology, look it up) of some animals are so delicate that they’re capable of smelling all kinds of things far beyond the reach of our puny proboscises, let alone any robotic sniffers we could create. It’s true: animals are capable of smelling disease. Earlier this year, we reported on the Gambian pouched rat, a giant rodent (about three feet long, including a long tail) that looks more like a hamster, with its cheek pouches and white tummy as well as its intelligent and friendly disposition. But, as Belgian Bart Weetjens figured out, the pouched rat’s amazing sense of smell and trainability would enable it to do much more than serve as an exotic pet (or, if we’re being honest, an occasional invasive species). Weetjens started APOPO, an NGO that uses these rats as both bomb sniffers and disease sniffers. As bomb sniffers, the rats (or as they’re known in-house, HeroRATS) are well-suited: they’re native to sub-Saharan Africa, where they’re often deployed; they have a long lifespan at 6-8 years; and are trained to work for food, rather than a bond with a handler, as dogs do, which means they can be swapped to different handlers without losing efficiency. They also are light enough to walk over buried land mines without triggering them, unlike dogs. But it’s their abilities as disease sniffers that’s most amazing. Tuberculosis, a widespread and destructive disease, is especially prevalent in the developing world, and the only detection methods available are nearly a century old and notoriously unreliable. Typically, TB is found using a microscope to a stained sample of phlegm. But this method misses as many as 60 to 80 percent of cases, because there needs to be a very high number of the offending bacteria in the sample to spot. Even worse, microscopy is very slow, only able to sift through about 40 samples per day. The HeroRATS are better than this option in every conceivable way. Trained to spend longer at infected samples and scratch at them, they can test the same 40 samples in less than seven minutes. Not only that, but the rats were able to detect 44 percent more positive cases than microscopy. Plus, rats are cheap, especially compared to the newer, admittedly more accurate models endorsed by the World Health Organization. But the rats are affordable, far better than current options, and, come on, kind of adorable.
Maggots, which are actually fly larvae, earn a morbid reputation, as they feed on dead flesh. But before you pass judgment, remember that sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Maggots have been used for medical purposes since antiquity, and they’re still used today in certain cases. Maggot therapy, as it’s called, involves introducing maggots to an exposed area of flesh, where they will clean the area of necrotic, or dead, tissue while leaving the living tissue intact. Most recently, maggot therapy has received attention for its effectiveness in treating MRSA, a bacterium that’s resistant to most antibiotics and which often includes flesh-eating types, which can cause serious injury or death if untreated. Without the benefits of antibiotics, this bacteria can only be removed through invasive surgery, and that surgery is often imprecise; surgeons are simply not as good at identifying dead from living tissue, and any surgery to debride, or remove necrotic tissue, results in an unwanted loss of living tissue. As Professor Andrew Boulton of the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester, said at the time of that 2007 study: “Maggots are the world’s smallest surgeons. In fact they are better than surgeons. They are much cheaper and work 24 hours a day. They remove the dead tissue and bacteria, leaving the healthy tissue to heal. There is no reason this cannot be applied to many other areas of the body, except perhaps a large abdominal wound.” Even better, maggots actually secrete certain antibiotics that serve to disinfect the wound, and maggot secretions also include allantoin, a substance used in many cosmetics and toiletries as a skin-soothing ingredient. Modern use of medical maggots was reintroduced in 1989 as a last-ditch option to remove newly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A type of green bottle fly (pictured) larva is often used, marketed under the name “Medical Maggots,” and can be prescribed by any physician. The maggots are placed in either a cage or a ventilated pouch–they need oxygen to survive–and feed on the necrotic tissue. It’s a remarkably safe procedure; the maggots have no interest in living tissue, will stop feeding when full, and cannot reproduce, as they are of course in the larval stage. They do have some drawbacks; medical maggots have a short lifespan, cause what is described as an “uncomfortable tickling sensation” (though you have to believe that’s better than the alternative), can only be used in certain cases (a moist wound with available oxygen is essential), and of course some patients find the idea of medical maggots distasteful. In a 2008 study, maggot therapy was found to be just as effective as leading hydrogels used for debridement, and debridement was much faster. Morbid? Maybe. But it’s proven to be more effective than our best surgeons.