8 Animals Helping Humans Save the Planet

Bee hovering on a flower
Photo: Orangeaurochs/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 2.0]

We humans may have created most of the environmental problems plaguing the planet, but that doesn’t mean we have to fix them alone. Sometimes solutions require complex technology and an army of scientists; sometimes they just require a little help from our friends — i.e., the furry, finned and flying kind. What follows is a look at some amazing animals, living and manufactured, with just the right characteristics and skills to aid researchers in combating everything from global warming to ocean pollution. Now that’s interspecies teamwork at its best.

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Photo: Kristie Burns/Working Dogs for Conservation

Man’s best friend is proving to be more than just a good companion and shepherd. Dogs, it turns out, are also quite capable conservationists. A group called Working Dogs for Conservation, as well as others like Conservation Dogs in the U.K., use canines to sniff out animal and plant populations so researchers can monitor and preserve them — an eco-variation on drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs. Because of their acute sense of smell and ability to traverse rugged terrain, dogs not only effectively nose for difficult-to-detect animal scat (poop), but they also help locate rare live animals and plants. Canine conservation projects include tracking jaguars in the Amazon rain forest and Mexico and monitoring Asiatic black bears classified as vulnerable in China. In the future they may even be used to detect indoor air contaminants.

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Photo: Gazprom Neft PJSC/Wikimedia Commons [CC by SA-4.0]

Looking for evidence of climate change can be tough going when you’re trying to measure winter ocean temperatures in the frigid, ice-choked arctic waters off Greenland. That’s why researchers are turning to some veteran deep-sea divers for help. Outfitted with thermometers and small satellite transmitters, 14 narwhals — tusked arctic whales known to dive more than a mile below the ocean surface — have helped University of Washington scientists document that waters in the center of Baffin Bay are some 0.9 degrees C warmer than previously estimated. Researchers are counting on these “unicorns of the sea” to continue aiding them in the development of more accurate climate models.

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Robotic fish

Photo: Essex Robotics

Dr. Huosheng Hu and his team of researchers at Essex University in the U.K. have developed a robotic fish, outfitted with sophisticated sensors that can be used to hunt for ocean pollutants. A shoal of these surprisingly lifelike robo-fish (watch one swimming here) will be launched off the coast of Spain later this year to collect and transmit water pollution data. The researchers also hope to use the fish, made to resemble carp, for toxin surveillance off the coast of Wales. On a similar front, a scientist at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University has developed a robotic fish that may one day shepherd schools of real fish from hazards, such as oil spills and underwater turbines.

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Photo: Gallinago_media/Shutterstock

Undetonated land mines are a serious form of pollution that leaves large geographical areas virtually uninhabitable and injures or kills thousands each year. That’s why locating and removing them from former war zones is so important. Trouble is that few human volunteers are willing to risk their lives to uncover them. Enter the rat brigade, specifically, African giant pouched rats. These fast-learning rodents, dubbed HeroRATs (which incidentally are too light to set off land mines), are being trained at the humanitarian organization APOPO to sniff out buried explosives. (APOPO is an acronym from Dutch for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development.) The group is also training rats to locate people buried under rubble from natural disasters, as well as detect leaking gas lines and even the presence of tuberculosis in human sputum samples.

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Sea lions and seals

Photo: Michael Weise/UC Santa Cruz

Scientists at the University of California-Santa Cruz have teamed up with some special “researchers” to help them document ocean temperatures, salinity and other undersea conditions. With their unique diving abilities that allow them to swim where few humans have gone before, ocean mammals such as sea lions (pictured) are being outfitted with sensors that stick to their fur and later fall off when they molt. Information is transmitted to a satellite when the animals surface to breathe and is used to create computer models that will better predict ocean circulation patterns. Elsewhere, researchers are using sensor-wearing elephant seals to dive under the Antarctic ice in search of climate change evidence. Elephant seals are even helping track the size and health of U.S. salmon populations.

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Photo: Jimmy Kao/Wikimedia Commons [CC by SA-3.0]

Because of their finely tuned sense of smell, bees also make excellent land mine locators. Not only are they helping scientists create highly accurate minefield maps, but because these winged bomb-sniffers hover rather than step, there’s also no danger of them losing their lives in unintended explosions. In addition, bees also give off warning signals when toxic chemicals are released; in fact, they produce specific buzzing sounds for individual chemicals. Researchers believe these signature buzzes could be used to precisely and accurately detect hazardous pollutants and chemical warfare attacks.

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Rubber duckies

Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr [CC by SA-2.0]

OK, they’re not breathing, quacking ducks, but these yellow rubber duckies are helping scientists chart the planet’s ocean currents and are even shedding light on how the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a floating junkyard of plastic debris stretching hundreds of miles across the northern Pacific) was formed. Nearly 20 years ago, 28,000 of these bath toys were lost at sea when the shipping crate carrying them fell overboard en route from Hong Kong to the United States. (Lost cargo at sea is actually a growing pollution problem.) Since then, researchers have documented Floatees, as they’re called, washing ashore around the world — from South America to Scotland to Australia. There are even 2,000 rubber duckies circulating in the infamous Garbage Patch. All of which goes to show that plastic is a spreading mess of global proportions.

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Photo: Dario Sanches/Wikimedia Commons [CC by SA-2.0]

In 1959, a partial meltdown occurred in a nuclear reactor at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, 30 miles outside Los Angeles. Government officials are conducting an investigation to see if any radiation lingers at the former rocket engine and nuclear research facility. Helping them look for signs of contamination are two mules — Sarah and Little Kate — who are tasked with wandering the rugged, hilly terrain around the facility carrying gamma radiation scanning equipment (neither Sarah nor Little Kate is pictured here). Whether you agree about subjecting animals to potential hazards, there’s no denying that this mule duo is providing invaluable data that will make the world safer for humans and nonhumans alike.