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A photograph of a small wild rat

Little Helpers

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...these rats help save the lives of thousands of people.

Even the smalled creatures have played a part in human warfare including the Gambian pouched rat, glow worm and common garden slug. The bioluminescent glow worm was used by soldiers to help them read maps and letters in the dark trenches of WWI. Trapping them in jars, the soldiers exploited the tiny light omitting creatures to their advantage.

Also during the Great War, the common garden slug was deployed by the U.S. army in the trenches as an early warning method to the presence of mustard gas. As slugs can detect one particle per 10-12,000,000 particles of air (three times better than humans) they would indicate their discomfort to the presence of gas in enough time for the soldiers to put on their gas masks.

Whilst not directly used in warfare, the Gambian pouched rat has been trained to detect one of the most deadly bi-products of war: landmines. “We train rats to save lives” is the motto of APOPO, a Belgian organisation which trains rats to use their exceptional sense of smell for humanitarian purposes.

Trained in Tanzania and affectionately called HeroRATs, they sniff out the TNT in a landmine and scratch at the surface to indicate to their human handlers the presence of a mine. Their light weight means they don’t detonate the mines and they can cover 300 square meters of land in one hour. With 66 countries and seven territories around the world still affected to this day by landmines and other explosive bi-products of war, these rats help save the lives of thousands of people.

Did you know?

During the Cold War, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency launched one its most bizarre efforts to gain an advantage over the Communists. Operation Kitty had cats surgically implanted with bugging devices and sent in undetected to eavesdrop on Soviet conversations, because after all who would suspect a cat of wearing a wire! But the first mission failed after the cat was sadly run over and the $15 million operation was abandoned shortly after., With most pressure-activated landmines requiring around 5kg of pressure or more to detonate, the African giant pouched rat weighs in at just 1.5kg or less making it too light to trigger the mine. With a lifespan of up to 8 years, and an ability to detect both metal and plastic-cased landmines (something metal detectors cannot), these rats have proven to be a very effective weapon in the fight against landmines.