Dogs Are Being Trained to Detect Malaria by Sniffing People's Socks

Courtesy of Medical Detection Dogs
Courtesy of Medical Detection Dogs

Dogs can find just about anything with their noses, including bombs, drugs, cadavers, bed bugs, and weirdly, whale poop. Now, man’s best friend is being trained to detect malaria in humans by simply sniffing their socks.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that caused roughly 445,000 deaths worldwide in 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It’s especially prevalent in Africa, but it's not limited to the continent. As of 2016, nearly half of the world’s population was at risk of contracting the disease.

While malaria is curable, initial symptoms may be mild or difficult to recognize. The disease can progress quickly and result in death if it’s not treated within the first 24 hours. Current diagnostic methods are also time-consuming because they require blood samples to be taken and sent off to a laboratory for testing.

In this way, trained dogs could provide a potentially life-saving service. A group of UK-based researchers say two trained dogs—a Labrador-golden retriever named Lexi and a Labrador named Sally—were able to pick up the scent of malaria on the socks of infected children from The Gambia in West Africa. Although their research is still in the early stages, they believe trained dogs could someday be used to help diagnose malaria more quickly and prevent it from spreading across national borders.

“This could provide a non-invasive way of screening for the disease at ports of entry in a similar way to how sniffer dogs are routinely used to detect fruit and vegetables or drugs at airports,” lead researcher Steve Lindsay, a professor at Durham University's Department of Biosciences, said in a statement.

Their findings are being presented October 29 at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. For their study, researchers collected 175 sock samples, some of which belonged to 30 children whose blood tested positive for the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. The dogs, which are kept at the Medical Detection Dogs charity in Milton Keynes, UK, were able to accurately categorize 70 percent of the malaria-infected samples and 90 percent of the non-infected samples.

Following the completion of the study, a third dog—a springer spaniel named Freya—also underwent malaria-detection training. Dogs have been trained to sniff out certain kinds of cancer and sugar changes in diabetes patients, but this is the first time they’ve been trained to detect a parasite infection. Researchers say artificial odor sensors could someday be developed, but for now, trained dogs could be a new resource in the global fight against malaria.

Dream Job Alert: You Can Live and Work in Yellowstone National Park This Fall

iStock/haveseen
iStock/haveseen

Geysers. Charismatic wildlife. Camping. A supervolcano. Yellowstone National Park is home to so many things to see and do that you’d practically have to be embedded there to experience it all. Now, some will have a unique opportunity to live and work on the grounds this fall.

For the past year, the Helping Hands program at the park has recruited applicants to stay at one of the Yellowstone National Park lodges run by the Xanterra Travel Collection. The program offers part-time, short-term park jobs for people seeking to explore Yellowstone in greater depth. Workers spend about 20 hours a week working food service, housekeeping, and other duties and are able to stay in low-cost dorm-style accommodations. Meals are provided for a small biweekly fee. The rooms don’t have many amenities—there’s no television and Wi-Fi is slow—but you certainly won't be at a loss for things to do.

The five-week program begins for two groups on September 5 and 12 and lasts through October 15. In addition to lodging, workers also receive a $10.10 hourly wage. You can submit an application at the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website.

5 Terrifyingly Huge Spiders

iStock/clauselsted
iStock/clauselsted

This week, woman in Tasmania came upon a massive huntsman spider devouring a pygmy possum at a lodge in the island's Mount Field National Park. The alarmingly huge arachnid was at least the size of a grown man's hand, and it's not the only giant spider out there. The enormous spiders below can’t be dispatched by a shoe or a rolled-up newspaper. They're sure to give you nightmares—even if you're not an arachnophobe.

1. Poecilotheria rajaei

Poecilotheria rajaei, a huge spider native to Sri Lanka
Ranil Nanayakkara/British Tarantula Society, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

This species of tarantula, discovered in northern Sri Lanka in 2013, has a leg span of 8 inches. That's roughly the size of your face! It’s part of an arboreal group called tiger spiders, which are indigenous to India and Sri Lanka. A dead male specimen of P. rajaei—which is distinguished from other tiger spiders by the markings on its legs and abdomen—was first presented to scientists in October 2009 by a local villager; a survey of the area revealed enough females and juveniles that scientists are confident they've found a new species. “They are quite rare,” Ranil Nanayakkara, co-founder of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Education and Research, told WIRED. “They prefer well-established old trees, but due to deforestation the number have dwindled and due to lack of suitable habitat they enter old buildings.” P. rajaei was named after a police officer who helped scientists navigate the area where it was found.

2. Theraphosa blondi

A Goliath bird-eating spider
universoaracnido, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Though Theraphosa blondi is called the Goliath bird-eating spider, it doesn’t actually eat birds. Reportedly, it got its name when an explorer saw it eating a hummingbird, but like other tarantulas, its diet consists mainly of insects, frogs, and rodents. But we’ll forgive you if you’re not comforted by that fact. After all, this spider can have a leg span nearly a foot across—the size of a dinner plate—and weigh up to 6 ounces, making it the largest spider in the world by mass. Its fangs, up to an inch long, can break human skin. (Though venomous, its poison won't bring down a human.) Native to South America, the spider makes noise by rubbing the bristles on its legs together; the sound can be heard up to 15 feet away.

3. Heteropoda maxima

A Heteropoda maxima spider
Petra & Wilifried, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yet another reason to avoid dark caverns: Discovered in a cave in Laos in 2011, the giant huntsman spider has a leg span of 12 inches. It’s just one of over 1000 species of huntsman spider. These speedy arachnids can chase down their prey with ease and have legs that extend forward, like a crab’s.

4. Golden silk orb-weavers

These arachnids, of the genus Nephila, have a fearsome relative: the largest fossilized spider ever found is an ancestor. Females of this group of spiders, which are found around the world, can have leg spans up to 6 inches (the males are smaller). Though these orb-weavers typically eat large insects, in Australia, some of these spiders have been snapped eating snakes and birds that got caught in their strong, 5-foot-diameter webs.

5. Phoneutria nigriventer

Sure, Phoneutria nigriventer's nearly 6-inch leg span is scary—but there's something else about this spider that makes it even more terrifying: its venom, a neurotoxin that can be fatal to humans. In fact, along with P. fera, this spider is the most toxic on Earth (thankfully, a good antivenom exists). Native to Central and South America, P. nigriventer is also called the Brazilian wandering spider, for its tendency to roam the forest at night, and the banana spider, both because it hides in banana plants during the day and sometimes stows away in shipments of the fruit. When threatened, the spider lifts its front two pairs of legs and sways side to side, as you can see in the video above.

This story originally appeared in 2013.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER