Webb, E. K., Caneva Saccardo, C., Poling, A. et al. 2020. Rapidly training African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) with multiple targets for scent detection. Behavioural Processes 174, 104085.
Since 1997, APOPO, a non-profit organization based in Tanzania, has deployed African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) to detect landmines in post-conflict areas. More recent research suggests the pouched rats can also be trained to detect tuberculosis in human sputum samples. Despite proven success on both tasks, the potential impact of each rat is limited by the required training time and constraint to a single target odor. The aim of this project was to establish a technique to rapidly train pouched rats to detect multiple odor targets. Eight pouched rats were trained to detect five unrelated target odors in Experiment 1. In addition to training duration, we measured maintenance of all odor targets. In Experiment 2, we examined response persistence under conditions of extinction. Experiment 3 investigated whether refresher sessions before tests would maintain detection accuracy. The animals mastered all odor targets in significantly fewer sessions than APOPO’s operational rats require to master a single target odor. Importantly, rats demonstrated strong discrimination between targets and non-targets despite the potential for interference and forgetting, suggesting pouched rats can be trained to detect at least five targets simultaneously. These results have the potential to increase the impact of each detection rat by both decreasing training time and expanding operational versatility, e.g., a single rat could be trained to detect multiple diseases.