New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Fossilized Fat Shows 550-Million-Year-Old Sea Creature May Have Been the World's First Animal

Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

A bizarre sea creature whose fossils look like a cross between a leaf and a fingerprint may be Earth's oldest known animal, dating back 558 million years.

As New Scientist reports, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) made a fortunate find in a remote region of Russia: a Dickinsonia fossil with fat molecules still attached. These odd, oval-shaped creatures were soft-bodied, had rib structures running down their sides, and grew about 4.5 feet long. They were as “strange as life on another planet,” researchers wrote in the abstract of a new paper published in the journal Science.

Another variety of fossil
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

Although Dickinsonia fossils were first discovered in South Australia in 1946, researchers lacked the organic matter needed to classify this creature. "Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran biota were: giant single-celled amoeba, lichen, failed experiments of evolution, or the earliest animals on Earth,” senior author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at ANU, said in a statement.

With the discovery of cholesterol molecules—which are found in almost all animals, but not in other organisms like bacteria and amoebas—scientists can say that Dickinsonia were animals. The creatures swam the seas during the Ediacaran Period, 635 million to 542 million years ago. More complex organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges didn’t emerge until 20 million years later.

The fossil with fat molecules was found on cliffs near the White Sea in an area of northwest Russia that was so remote that researchers had to take a helicopter to get there. Collecting the samples was a death-defying feat, too.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone, and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after,” lead author Ilya Bobrovskiy of ANU said. Considering that this find could change our understanding of Earth’s earliest life forms, it seems the risk was worth it.

[h/t New Scientist]

Endeavour, Captain Cook's Lost Ship, Might Have Been Found—Solving a Centuries-Old Mystery

Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The exact location of the final resting place of Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, which was sunk off the coast of Rhode Island 200 years ago, is considered one of maritime history’s greatest mysteries. Now, after a 25-year effort to pinpoint its remains among 13 sunken vessels, The Age reports that the Endeavour might have finally been identified.

British explorer James Cook left England on the Endeavour in 1768 headed for the South Pacific. He and his crew became the first European expedition to map the entire coast of New Zealand, and later, the first to reach Australia’s east coast. Along the way, they collected hundreds of previously unknown plant species, became the first Europeans to record a kangaroo sighting, and gathered evidence that would help disprove the existence of the long-speculated southern continent, Terra Australis, that hypothetically extended all the way up to the equator.

A replica of the 18th-century 'Endeavour' in the ocean
A replica of the Endeavour in 2004
Dennis4trigger, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

After that three-year journey, Cook and his crew returned to England. Though Cook became a legend, the Endeavour didn’t receive the star treatment. The British Royal Navy used it to ferry supplies to and from the Falkland Islands for several years before selling it to a private buyer. The ship was renamed the Lord Sandwich, and was eventually put into service transporting German mercenaries to fight on Britain's side in the American Revolution.

That’s how the ship ended up in Rhode Island, where it was stationed as part of the Royal Navy’s fleet in Newport Harbor and used as a prison ship for captured American soldiers. When French reinforcements came to assist American revolutionaries in Rhode Island, the British decided to sink their ships rather than allow them to be captured, creating a blockade out of scuttled vessels to block the French from getting into the harbor. They sank 12 transport vessels and set another on fire. Over the ensuing years, locals and French forces took equipment from the wrecks, but it’s never been entirely clear what happened to the remains.

The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project began to try to map and identify those remains starting in the early 1990s, and eventually figured out that the Lord Sandwich was the same ship as the HMS Endeavour. As the ship played a vital role in Australian history, the Australian National Maritime Museum then got involved with the project.

The two organizations have announced that they have lowered the number of potential wrecks that could be the Endeavour from 14 to five—and perhaps down to just one—by inspecting the area and measuring the wrecks against historic information about Cook's vessel. The researchers think the final resting place of the ship is located off the coast of Goat Island in Narragansett Bay, but to be absolutely certain, they’ll have to excavate the remains of the ship and examine its timbers. The researchers hope to have that work done by the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Australia’s Botany Bay—and his claiming of Australia as British territory—in 2020.

And there may be a battle over the remains. While the ship is considered a vital artifact of Australian history, the state of Rhode Island claimed ownership of all of the sunken ships in 1999, and they are overseen by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

[h/t The Age]

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