Rats! What do I buy for Christmas?

APOPO HeroRAT  getting food reward. By Gooutside (Own work) [Public domain].In addition to offering a stellar array of science communications services, Talk Science To Me would like to help with your gift list in the run-up to the festive season. Have you thought about gifting a rat or two this Christmas?

Solving the joint dilemmas of having too little time to go shopping and not knowing what to buy the science nerd in your life, our suggestion painlessly slips some science into the stocking while supporting research in action.

Rats?

Yes, rats. Not just any rats, but virtual ones (no wrapping a moving target with teeth and a tail). And to be more precise: Cricetomys gambianus, commonly known as the African giant pouched rat.

These rats have skill and a purpose: in areas such as Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola and Thailand, they are actively de-mining areas, ridding them of landmines and other unexploded ordnance to return the land safely to farming and community use.

During research for another post, we stumbled across the HeroRAT program, run by Belgian NGO Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development), or APOPO. We were enchanted and thought it too much of a science treasure to keep to ourselves.

Landmines, left over from the various wars, conflicts and skirmishes, render the landscape unusable and dangerous. Manual de-mining is an expensive and time-consuming process, so progress has been slow, leaving many rural areas littered with these deadly objects. Unfortunately, pressure for land means that people need to cross though these mine-infested areas, often with tragic results.

APOPO’s HeroRAT program trains the rats, using their impressive sense of smell to sniff out landmines and mark them for follow-up by manual mine clearance. The small teams of instructors, rats and their handlers work locally and can clear an area faster than someone working with a mine detector.

APOPO rats are also using their skills to sniff out markers of tuberculosis in sputum samples, providing a cheap and effective rapid screening tool that marks cases for further diagnostic attention.

The “technology” behind the mine detection and the TB testing is all in the nose. Rats have an awesome sense of smell, being able to discriminate many more scents than a human can. They are small and easy to train, which makes them more economical and practical than a dog (or a shark, or an elephant …). Moreover, they’re not heavy enough to set off landmines and will work for a food reward. Being indigenous to the areas in which they are used means they are resistant to most diseases and comfortable with the environmental conditions.

Although they are small, cheap and portable, the rats still require support, and APOPO needs funds to keep the project going. For around US$7 per month (about US$84 annually) you can gift an adoption, providing training, healthcare and food to one rat. Adoption includes a personal myapopo account, where donors can stay up to date with rat news and progress reports, share pictures on social media, and generally get involved in the work their rat is doing.

So, if you’re baffled by what to buy the in-laws for Christmas this year, maybe some science in action could fit the bill?

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