This Memorial Day, Remembering Animals That Served
Let us tell you about the birds and the bees, and other courageous creatures that answered the call of duty.
Many brave men and women have defended this nation against tyranny and injustice. Animals, too, have served and defended our country in a number of different ways. On Memorial Day, when we honor those who died in the line of duty, we're highlighting the sacrifices made by a surprising array of animals.
Back in 1941, when the nation was reeling from the devastation of Pearl Harbor, the Air Force, Army, and Marines decided to strap bombs onto bats. A dentist lent the National Defense Committee the fantastical idea of using bat bombs as retaliation against the Japanese. Several tests were run with Mexican free-tailed bats netted from caves, but ultimately, it was decided that the animals were not to be trusted with explosives: A few escaped during practice runs and set off massive fires in military facilities.
Bomb-sniffing bees may be coming to an airport near you. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is teaching honeybees to smell explosives. When they detect even the subtlest hint of a target chemical, they start to wag their tongue-like proboscises. Officers who are watching the bees can monitor changes in their behavior and send out an alert if they seem disturbed. The bees are kept in a closed chamber during the process, but are returned to their hives at the end of the day. DARPA is still working on mobilizing these security bees. In the future, they may also be used to expose caches of drugs, such as cocaine and meth.
The US Navy's use of bottlenose dolphins is not a well-kept secret. But most people probably don't know that sea lions are also a part of the military's Marine Mammal Program. They're easy to train and well adapted for deep-water conditions, thanks to their acute vision and supreme directional hearing--making them excellent agents for detecting mines and underwater intruders. Currently, there's one operational unit of sea lions based out of San Diego.
D-Day was the turning point of World War II, but it came at the cost of 9,000 Allied lives. More lives would have been lost however, if it weren't for rock pigeons. As the Allies descended on the beaches of western France, their radios went dead. Communications were blacked out between the troops and the Allied headquarters--until, that is, the pigeons flew in. The birds delivered important tactical information, such as enemy coordinates, and let the Allied leaders in England know how their troops were faring.
Pigeons were used extensively in both of the World Wars. With their precise homing instincts, they were the ideal choice for transmitting information quickly and accurately. They were also the first animals to be formally recognized in the U.S. for their valor. The Dickin Medal, created in 1943, has been awarded to many pigeons, numerous dogs, three horses, and one cat.
Over the decades, historians have uncovered numerous stories about the valor of pigeons-in-service: British paratroopers used them to send coded messages with the locations of German tanks, and Americans outfitted them with fake letters stating that the D-Day invasion was going to take place in Calais. The German army eventually caught wind of the Allied collaboration with pigeons, and started shooting the birds and training falcons to take them down.
This new invention will help you look at insects in a new light. Cyborg insects are being considered by DARPA as an alternative to surveillance drones. By attaching electrodes to moths, beetles, and other flying insects, scientists in the U.S. have successfully transformed invertebrates into remote-controlled cyborgs. One engineer from the University of California, Berkley went so far as to rewire the musculature of a giant flower beetle so that he could redirect the insect's flight. He then stuck a backpack on the beetle using beeswax. The contraption would emit electrical pulses on his command, forcing the beetle to steer itself in the chosen direction.
SOLDIERS IN THE RANKS
The use of elephants in warfare dates back to the conquests of Hannibal in 218 B.C. Conquerors would have the massive mammals transport weaponry, but they were also a valuable part of arsenals. One elephant could effectively take out many soldiers on foot. However, once armies began to transition to artillery and cannons, it became impractical to bring the six-ton animals out onto the battlefield. But they were still tapped for their extraordinary strength in a variety of ways; during WWII, for instance, they helped to construct bridges for the British. Today, the U.S. military avoids handling elephants due to their Endangered status.
Also from DARPA comes the WildCat robot. This futuristic creation, modeled after cheetahs, can gallop at speeds of up to 30 mph. Its practical uses range from fighting fires to wielding firearms in war zones. WildCat's greatest weakness right now is its noisy power source, something its creators are working to rectify. The quieter they make it, the deadlier it'll be.