6 Unusual Members of Mother Nature's Bomb Squad

Police, military, and security personnel have used dogs for years to locate explosives. In the last decade, homeland security and Middle East battlefronts have created an overwhelming demand for these four-legged finders that cannot always be met. Luckily, Mother Nature offers us a few other ways to detect things that go boom.

1. Bees

Bomb-sniffing dogs are great at their jobs, but they come with some drawbacks. It can take months to train a dog and his human handler, and keeping their skills sharp requires constant practice. Bomb dogs are also expensive, when you consider the costs of training, food, shelter, veterinary bills, and the salary of a dedicated handler. A UK company, Inscentinel, believes they have a cheaper, faster, but just as effective alternative: bees.

To train “sniffer bees," Inscentinel feeds the insects sugar water while exposing them to the smell of dynamite. After that, any time the bees detect dynamite, even in concentrations as small as a few parts-per-trillion, they'll extend their tongue-like proboscises, searching for a sugary treat. The training takes less than 10 minutes, but lasts for the bee's entire six-week lifespan. Although that is quite a bit shorter than the 10-year career of the average bomb dog, with these methods, Inscentinel can train about 500 bees a day, so there are always new sniffers ready to go.

Once the bees are trained, a few dozen are placed inside Inscentinel's handheld device, the Vasor136. Each bee is kept in place with a special bracket, and then monitored with an infrared sensor. If the sensors are set off by extended proboscises, an LCD screen alerts the human operator. Much like their six-legged partners, it only takes a few minutes to train a person to use the Vasor136.

With a quick training time, inexpensive food supply, and relatively cheap maintenance cost for a hive, bees can be a great alternative to bomb dogs. Best of all, in addition to bombs, bees can also be trained just as easily and quickly to sniff out illegal drugs or even some contagious diseases. And you thought they were only good for making honey.

2. Rats

Thanks to that whole Bubonic Plague thing, rats have gotten a pretty bad rap. But Bart Weetjens and his organization APOPO want to change all that with HeroRATS, a program that uses rats to safely and effectively clear minefields.

In case you're wondering, no, they don't just let the rats run across the minefield and see what happens. It typically requires at least 5kg/11lbs of weight to set off a mine, so even the African giant pouched rats used by APOPO, which weigh about 1.5kb/3.3lbs, can run through a minefield unharmed. To clear an area, the rats are accompanied by two human handlers who stand on either side of the danger zone with a wire running between them. The rat is tethered to the wire using a specially-designed harness, and the rodent runs back and forth across the area. If he stops to dig, it means he's detected the scent of dynamite. The mine is marked by a handler and the rat gets a piece of banana as a reward. With this technique, the team can clear a 300-square meter section of land in an hour. In comparison, two people using metal detectors would need two full days to cover the same area. Not only are the rats faster, but they can detect plastic-encased explosives that the metal detectors would miss.

Training HeroRATS takes about nine months at a cost of 6,000€/$7,400. But after that initial investment, they require very little medical care, are inexpensive to feed and shelter, and will live for up to eight years. In addition, they don't typically form tight bonds with specific handlers, a common occurrence with bomb dogs. This means that rats can easily work with any handler and still perform at a high level of accuracy.

Currently, APOPO operates in Mozambique and Thailand, with their headquarters and training facilities located in Tanzania. In addition to clearing minefields, the rats have also been used to detect tuberculosis, increasing the TB detection rates by 43% in partner hospitals. They’re also trying to train rats to enter debris left after an earthquake or other disaster to search for buried survivors.

The idea is catching on in America, too. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Army announced that it's working on a new program using bomb-detecting rats, called the Rugged Automated Training System (R.A.T.S.). Although they have no intention of replacing the military’s bomb-sniffing dogs, they’re looking at rats as a potential supplement animal to make bomb detection faster, cheaper, and more easily deployable to more units in the field.

3. Mice

An Israeli company, BioExplorers, is developing ways to train mice for use in public spaces like airport security gates, sports arenas, and even at drive-through toll booths to sniff out drugs or explosives. Similar to the handheld device from Inscentinel, the mice are housed inside an enclosure where they are monitored for signs of reaction to various scents. As a person walks past the enclosure, say just after they pass through the airport metal detector, the mice can get a whiff. If they react, the device beeps and red lights flash to warn a human operator. Training for one type of scent only takes about 10 days, with additional scents requiring a few additional days. But the mice can remember dozens of different scents, so they could become all-encompassing screeners in many different scenarios.

4 & 5. Dolphins and Sea Lions

Photo via the Official U.S. Navy Imagery Flickr account

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins and sea lions to detect and mark underwater mines. With the dolphins' underwater sonar capabilities, it’s been said they can detect the difference between a natural soybean and a man-made BB at a distance of up to 50 feet. When you consider that man-made sonar can’t differentiate between a rock and a mine, it’s pretty clear why dolphins are so useful in this capacity. Sea lions, on the other hand, use their excellent sense of sight – five times more powerful than man’s - to locate underwater mines. Once an explosive has been found, the animals point human handlers to the location by dropping an acoustic transponder or releasing a floating marker.

In addition to mines, the Navy’s dolphins and sea lions can also easily locate divers in places they shouldn’t be – say on the underside of a ship in a harbor. When an unauthorized swimmer is found, dolphins bump into the diver’s air tank and attach a strobe light connected to a buoy that floats to the surface so that sailors can apprehend the suspect. Similarly, sea lions clamp a special cuff around the diver’s leg. But instead of a strobe light, the cuff is attached to a line that runs back to a Navy ship, where the sailors aboard simply reel in the diver like the catch of the day.

Although the program has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became declassified. Since then, the Navy’s dolphins have mainly worked and trained in the waters around their home port of San Diego. However, they have been deployed to patrol for unauthorized swimmers in Puget Sound in 2010, and in the Persian Gulf in 2003, where they helped clear more than 100 mines during the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, they have been considered for a mission in the Strait of Hormuz after repeated threats by Iran to block the Persian Gulf’s only sea passage.

6. Plants

Photo via the Colorado State University Department of Public Relations

With assistance from Professor June Medford of Colorado State University, future bomb sniffers might not even have noses. Medford and her team in the Biology Department have genetically modified plants’ natural receptors to air and soil pollutants to detect explosives and other dangerous chemicals. If these bomb-sniffing plants absorb TNT from the air, an internal switch is flipped and they change color from green to white. Once the TNT has been removed, the plants return to their natural color.

Bomb-sniffing plants could easily become an early warning device for everything ranging from explosives to chemical and biological weapons or even environmental pollutants. The plan is to eventually have certain types of plants set up to detect certain types of dangers. For example, if the hydrangeas planted outside the airport are white, but the roses are still red, you know you have a bomb in the area, but not anthrax. Medford is working to make the gene “plug-and-play”, meaning this new gene sequence could be used on virtually any type of plant, like trees. This would make it possible to use an airplane or satellite to monitor the leaves in a neighborhood to determine the breadth of an area affected by a pollutant.

As of right now, the color change takes place over a couple of hours. While that’s still a great early warning window, Medford hopes to speed that up to only a few minutes in the future.

This Just In
Yes, Parents Do Play Favorites—And Often Love Their Youngest Kid Best

If you have brothers or sisters, there was probably a point in your youth when you spent significant time bickering over—or at least privately obsessing over—whom Mom and Dad loved best. Was it the oldest sibling? The baby of the family? The seemingly forgotten middle kid?

As much as we'd like to believe that parents love all of their children equally, some parents do, apparently, love their youngest best, according to The Independent. A recent survey from the parenting website Mumsnet and its sister site, the grandparent-focused Gransnet, found that favoritism affects both parents and grandparents.

Out of 1185 parents and 1111 grandparents, 23 percent of parents and 42 percent of grandparents admitted to have a favorite out of their children or grandchildren. For parents, that tended to be the youngest—56 percent of those parents with a favorite said they preferred the baby of the family. Almost 40 percent of the grandparents with a favorite, meanwhile, preferred the oldest. Despite these numbers, half of the respondents thought having a favorite among their children and grandchildren is "awful," and the majority think it's damaging for that child's siblings.

Now, this isn't to say that youngest children experience blatant favoritism across all families. This wasn't a scientific study, and with only a few thousand users, the number of people with favorites is actually not as high as it might seem—23 percent is only around 272 parents, for instance. But other studies with a bit more scientific rigor have indicated that parents do usually have favorites among their children. In one study, 70 percent of fathers and 74 percent of mothers admitted to showing favoritism in their parenting. "Parents need to know that favoritism is normal," psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, who specializes in family dynamics, told The Wall Street Journal in 2017.

But youngest kids don't always feel the most loved. A 2005 study found that oldest children tended to feel like the preferred ones, and youngest children felt like their parents were biased toward their older siblings. Another study released in 2017 found that when youngest kids did feel like there was preferential treatment in their family, their relationships with their parents were more greatly affected than their older siblings, either for better (if they sensed they were the favorite) or for worse (if they sensed their siblings were). Feeling like the favorite or the lesser sibling didn't tend to affect older siblings' relationships with their parents.

However, the author of that study, Brigham Young University professor Alex Jensen, noted in a press release at the time that whether or not favoritism affects children tends to depend on how that favoritism is shown. "When parents are more loving and they're more supportive and consistent with all of the kids, the favoritism tends to not matter as much," he said, advising that “you need to treat them fairly, but not equally.” Sadly for those who don't feel like the golden child, a different study in 2016 suggests that there's not much you can do about it—mothers, at least, rarely change which child they favor most, even over the course of a lifetime.

[h/t The Independent]

15 Scientific Reasons Spring Is the Most Delightful Season

Summer, winter, and fall may have their fans, but spring is clearly the most lovable of the four seasons. Not convinced? Here are 15 scientific reasons why spring is great:


road and field on a sunny day

Spring marks the end of blistering winter and the transitional period to scorching summer. In many places, the season brings mild temperatures in the 60s and 70s. People tend to be most comfortable at temperatures of about 72°F, research shows, so the arrival of spring means you can finally ditch the heavy winter layers and still be comfortable.


sunny sky

Following the spring equinox, days begin lasting longer and nights get shorter. Daylight Saving Time, which moves the clock forward starting in March, gives you even more light hours to get things done. Those extra hours of sun can be a major mood-booster, according to some research. A 2016 study of students in counseling at Brigham Young University found that the longer the sun was up during the day, the less mental distress people experienced.


blue bird on branch

Many animals migrate south during the winter, then head north as temperatures rise. For relatively northern regions, there is no better indicator of spring than birds chirping outside your window. Their northward migration can start as early as mid-February and last into June, meaning that throughout the spring, you can expect to see a major avian influx. In addition to the satisfaction of marking species off your bird-watching checklist, seeing more of our feathered friends can make you happy. In 2017, a UK study found that the more birds people could see in their neighborhoods, the better their mental health.


Baby squirrels

Many animals reproduce in the spring, when temperatures are warmer and food is plentiful. Baby bunnies, ducklings, chipmunks, and other adorable animals abound come spring. Studies have found that seeing cute animals can have positive effects on humans. For instance, one small study in 2012 found that when college students looked at cute images of baby animals, they were better at focusing on a task in the lab. Being able to watch fluffy baby squirrels frolic outside your office window might make spring your most productive season of the year.


flowers hanging outside of a house

In 2015, a pair of public policy researchers discovered a hidden upside to "springing forward" for Daylight Saving Time. It reduced crime. When the sun set later in the evening, the study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics found, robbery rates fell. After Daylight Saving Time started in the spring, there was a 27 percent drop in robberies during that extra hour of evening sunlight, and a 7 percent drop over the course of the whole day.


child with rainbow umbrella jumping in puddle

Warmer temperatures mean you can spend more time outside without freezing your feet off, which is great for mental health. Across the seasons, research has found that taking walks in nature slows your heart rate and makes you more relaxed, but some research indicates that there is something special about spring's effect on your brain. A 2005 study from the University of Michigan linked spending 30 minutes or more outside in warm, sunny spring weather to higher mood and better memory. But the effect reverses when spring ends, since being outside in the warmest days of summer is usually pretty uncomfortable.


woman writing in a park

That same University of Michigan study found that spending time outside in the sunny spring weather isn't just a mood booster, it actually can change the way people think. The researchers found that being outdoors broadened participants' minds, leaving them more open to new information and creative thoughts.


leaves budding in spring

Spring brings green growth back to plants and trees. Depending on where you live, trees may begin sporting new leaves as early as mid-March. That successful spring leaf growth ensures a cool canopy to relax under during the hot summer—a hugely important factor in keeping cities comfortable. According to researchers, vegetation plays a big role in mitigating the urban heat island effect. When trees release water back into the air through evapotranspiration, it can cool down the areas around them by up to 9°F, according to the EPA.


tulip bulbs

It's amazing what a little sun can do for plants and grass. Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into food, releasing oxygen in the process. That means as plants start to grow in the spring, they pull carbon out of the atmosphere, providing an important environmental service. Plants take in roughly 25 percent of the carbon emissions humans produce, absorbing more than 100 gigatons of carbon through photosynthesis each growing season. Because of this, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drops each spring and summer. (Unfortunately, it rises in the winter, when most plants aren't growing.)


wooden box full of fresh produce

Many vegetables and some fruits are harvested in the spring. 'Tis the season to get your local asparagus, greens, peas, rhubarb, and other fresh produce. Getting more fruits and vegetables into your diet isn't just good for the body; it's good for the soul. A 2016 study of more than 12,000 Australians found that when people increased the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet, they felt happier and had higher rates of life satisfaction. If they increased their intake by eight portions a day (a tall order, we know) the psychological gains were equivalent to the change in well-being people experience when they go from being unemployed to having a job, the researchers found.


Flowers in a vase

After months spent conserving energy, flowers bloom in the spring, once they sense that the days have grown longer and the weather has turned warmer. That's good for humans, because several studies have shown that looking at flowers can make you happy. A 2008 study of hospital patients found that having flowers in the room made people feel more positive and reduced their pain and anxiety [PDF]. Another study from Rutgers University found that when participants were presented with a bouquet of flowers, it resulted in what scientists call a "true smile" a full 100 percent of the time. Seeing flowers had both "immediate and long-term effects" that resulted in elevated moods for days afterward, according to the researchers [PDF].


woman tying shoes in flower field

While it's important to keep moving no matter what the weather, research shows that working out can be more beneficial if you do it outside. A 2011 study found that, compared with an indoor workout, exercising outdoors in nature increased energy levels, made people feel revitalized, and decreased tension, among other positive effects. People who worked out in the fresh air also tended to say they enjoyed the experience more and would be likely to repeat it, suggesting that using nature as your gym might help you stick with your exercise regimen. While those benefits probably extend to winter, too, it's a whole lot easier to stomach the idea of a run once the weather warms up.


dew on grass and a daisy

Flu season in the U.S. typically lasts through the fall and winter, usually peaking between December and February and tapering off during the spring. The seasonal change is in part because of dry air. Cold temperatures mean a drop in humidity, and indoor heating only makes the air drier. This lack of moisture in the air can dry out your skin and the nasal cavities, leading to nose bleeds, irritated sinuses, and a greater risk of getting sick. Since the mucus in your nose is designed to trap viruses, when it dries up, you're more likely to catch something nasty, like the flu. As the weather warms up and becomes more humid throughout the spring, that mucus comes back. As the season wears on, not only can you lay off the body lotion, but you can probably put away the tissues—if you don't have spring allergies, that is.


windows open on a red house

Temperate weather makes it easier to get the fresh air you need. Opening your windows and allowing the breeze in serves as an important way to ventilate indoor spaces, according to the EPA. A lack of ventilation can lead to an unhealthy concentration of indoor pollutants from sources like cleaning product fumes, certain furniture and building materials, and stoves (especially gas ones), posing a threat to your health and comfort. Winter brings the highest rates of indoor pollutants like nitrogen oxide, a 2016 study of unventilated stove use in homes found. Spring brings the perfect opportunity to throw open those windows and doors and get the air moving again.


woman enjoying sitting in the sun

Sunlight triggers your body to produce the vitamin D, which keeps your bones strong. At northern latitudes, it's extremely difficult to get enough sun exposure naturally to maintain healthy vitamin D levels during the winter—even if you did want to expose your skin to the elements—but that starts to change during the spring. One Spanish study found that in Valencia (which shares a latitude with Philadelphia, Denver, Baltimore, Kansas City, and several other major U.S. cities), people only need 10 minutes outside with a quarter of their bodies exposed to the spring sunshine to get an adequate daily dose of vitamin D.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.


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