Backpack-wearing rats may be the future of search and rescue operations. Imagine if you were trapped and scared but then a sweet little rat came by to save your life. It has a light, GPS transmitter, camera, and even a two-way radio among its gear. Maybe it even plays a recording introducing itself as a RescueRat and helping keep you calm while human rescuers make their way to you.
Experts at APOPO are training African giant pouched rats for exactly this purpose. The agency already uses trained rats and dogs to find unexploded land mines and even detect cases of tuberculosis. If all goes well, these real-life rodent rescue rangers could be on the scene by next year.
Rats are easily trained and can access places that dogs can’t reach. They are also more willing than dogs to work with multiple trainers, offering greater flexibility. Anyone offering treats of rat pellets broken up in avocado and banana can entice the critters to learn their new tasks.
We learned about these animals with a job from New Scientist. The magazine Science also did a Q&A with trainer Donna Kean. Both include adorable photos and videos we highly recommend checking out. Like this one below of a happy rat at quitting time stuffing its cheek pouches full to bursting with banana.
There are other research projects aiming to replace trained dogs with other animals. Some are training ants to detect cancer. Scientists also previously found that rats love to learn new tasks by teaching them to drive a little car. They can also learn to use virtual reality displays by playing Doom II.
The only problem could come if anyone trapped in rubble is also afraid of rats. Hopefully the backpack and other tiny devices would help ease their fears.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.