Alexander Ophir, a professor at Oklahoma State University's department of zoology, is getting money from the Army Research Office to study the African giant pouched rat, an animal with bad vision but an acute sense of smell. Ophir says the rat's olfactory ability could someday be used to detect explosives.
"This is the kind of technology that would be hopefully used to save lives," Ophir told AOL News.
In fact, using rats to detect explosives is not entirely new. APOPO, a Belgian charity, already uses the African giant pouched rat, which can grow up to 3 feet long, to detect land mines. The group, which works in Tanzania and Mozambique, is also training the rats to smell the bacteria that causes tuberculosis to determine if someone could be suffering from the disease.
Ophir plans to study the rats' innate abilities and then find a way to maximize their bomb-smelling potential. He says his work is aimed at observing the rats in their natural environment and then identifying "personality" types, or temperaments, that may determine whether some rats are more disposed toward detection.
Not all rats are created equal, according to Ophir. "Not everybody will be a fighter pilot. Some might be better in artillery or sharpshooters," he said.
Some rats, in other words, might just be naturally suited for sniffing out bombs. And once that trait is identified, the idea would be to see if DNA could be linked to that trait and then use that genetic marker to pick out those rats at birth for a career in bomb detection.
Ophir said the rats could be used for detecting land mines or roadside bombs in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They could even be used by Transportation Security Administration agents to screen cargo at airports, he suggested.
While rats may not be as people-friendly as dogs, and it may be hard for many people to imagine airport security agents making their way through baggage with leashed rodents, they do offer some advantages, according to Ophir, including ease of training.
"Dogs bond with their trainers," he said. "Rats don't bond."
Dogs typically work with one highly specialized handler, while rats could work with anybody who has a reasonable amount of training. One person could work with five or six different rats, making them potentially more cost-effective than dogs.
But is the rats' sense of smell any better or worse than that of dogs? "Nobody has asked that question or tried to answer it," Ophir said. "We do know dogs have a very keen sense of smell, and these rats have an incredibly keen sense of smell."
"We need to find something that motivates them that they don't satiate to," he says. "Sex, for example, is very rewarding."
For dogs, the "prey instinct," which can be represented by something as simple as a tennis ball, works very well. "I don't think rats' motivation is as strong as dogs' for toys," he said. "That's a disadvantage."