African Elephants Can Detect TNT Using Olfaction: Implications of Biomimicry for Biosensor Applications
June 8, 2016 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm
The impact of war on local wildlife can be devastating, the effects of which are often felt well beyond the terminus of the initial threat. In areas where wildlife experiences unrestricted movement through previously affected zones, residual, unexploded landmines present a significant and potentially lethal problem. Anecdotal reports of African elephants (Loxodonta africana), in a once war-torn Angola, avoiding mine-fields together with telemetry data suggest that the species may be able to detect concealed landmines using olfaction. Before any in-field experiments can be conducted, an elephant’s olfactory capacity for the detection of the most commonly used component in landmines, trinitrotoluene (TNT), needed to be established. Using three African elephants under controlled conditions, we used operant conditioning to test whether elephants are able to detect and reliably indicate the presence of TNT using olfaction. Elephants detected and indicated TNT using olfaction at levels greater than chance, with high sensitivity and selectivity, even when in the presence of highly volatile distractor odors. While the actual use of elephants in a hazardous war environment is clearly unreasonable we can learn greatly from their capabilities and perhaps use them for counter poaching of wildlife in their native habitat. This is just one example where studying animals we can understand how to better protect and empower the Soldier.
Canis lupus familiaris (the domestic dog) is often overlooked for its long history of supporting military operations with the earliest recorded use being 600 BC against the Cimmerians. Ultimately, there are many opportunities for basic and applied research supporting the Military Working Dog (MWD). As a sensing capability, the use of MWDs cannot be surpassed by any other explosives sensing system. There are research opportunities with the fielded MWD – Handler system to learn about how to integrate autonomous systems into the battlefield. The MWD will continue to be utilized by the Army and research towards these needs will help improve and enhance the capability of the MWD and the Soldier.