Animals help us in ways too numerous to count. At the global level, they’re an indispensable part of the natural systems that keep humans healthy. And at the individual level, they give us priceless companionship. But they’ve also assisted us in less-obvious ways. Here are a few surprising times that animals have swooped in—or crawled in, or swam in—to save the day.
1. WIMBLEDON HAWK
At Wimbledon, pigeons are a problem. They love to eat the seed that is used to maintain the courts’ grassy carpet, and they’ll occasionally amble onto the courts and interrupt play. But pigeons are afraid of hawks and falcons, so raptors are a natural way to keep them at bay. A trained Harris hawk named Rufus holds the official title of “Bird Scarer” for the Wimbledon Championships. Rufus’ owner has him fly around the complex to keep pigeons away. Besides his work in the service of tennis, this hawk has also shooed away pigeons from hospitals, airfields, Westminster Abbey, and other sites.
2. GAS-SENSING SLUGS
Slugs may spell death for your garden plants, but they can also protect human lives. That’s because they’re able to detect deadly poison. In the early 20th century, Dr. Paul Bartsch, a mollusk expert at the U.S. National Museum, kept great grey garden slugs (also known as leopard slugs) in his home. One day his slimy charges escaped into his furnace room, and they reacted to gas fumes by hunching up and closing their breathing holes. Intrigued, Bartsch ran experiments and found that slugs also reacted to very low levels of mustard gas. During World War I, soldiers began to bring these humble critters into the trenches as an early warning system.
3. PIGS SAVING PLANES
Collisions between birds and planes can cause engine failures and crashes. At Salt Lake City International Airport, domestic pigs have been used in recent years to keep birds away. Because pigs will disturb nests and eat eggs, their presence scares away the local population of California gulls, preventing the seabirds from nesting too near the airport.
4. OENOPHILE OWLS
A person who loves wine is an oenophile. And if you’re one of them, you might want to give thanks to barn owls. Rodents are a big problem in vineyards; pocket gophers, for example, form networks of tunnels through the soil and chew on roots and vines. Luckily, barn owls make a big dent in rodent populations. In California, grape growers have been putting up nesting boxes to boost owl populations and keep their crop safe.
5. SEA SNAIL PAINKILLER
The fantastically named magician’s cone is a sea snail that uses highly toxic venom to hunt fish. This venom is amazing stuff; it contains substances that work rapidly and target highly specific spots. Researchers figured out how to harness magician’s cone venom for medicine and used it to create a painkilling drug. Approved by the FDA in 2004, Ziconotide provides relief for patients who don’t respond to traditional painkillers.
6. JELLYFISH FOR SCIENCE
With the help of a jellyfish called the crystal jelly, three scientists discovered an incredible way to peer into the hidden inner workings of cells. Osamu Shimomura, Roger Y. Tsien, and Martin Chalfie figured out how to attach a fluorescent jellyfish protein to proteins and follow them like a glowing beacon. They won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work, and this major advancement has helped researchers around the world fight cancer, follow the spread of dangerous viruses, and do much more.
7. BONE-CLEANING BEETLES
Bones are a treasure trove of information for scientists. But cleaning the meat and other material from a skeleton is harder than you’d think—especially when you’re working with tiny, delicate specimens. Enter dermestid beetles. The larvae of these insects eat everything but the bones, quickly and effectively cleaning valuable specimens. Several museums maintain colonies of these useful beetles.
8. PARTICLE PHYSICS FERRET
Anyone who’s had a pet ferret knows that they love exploring tubes. Wild ferrets use their skinny bodies to hunt rabbits in their burrows. In 1971, a visiting physicist at Fermilab’s Meson Laboratory figured out a novel method for cleaning the vacuum chamber pipes that were essential to the center’s experiments. Carrying a string, a ferret named Felicia scurried through the tubes in exchange for tasty treats. Researchers used the string to pull cleaning rags through the tubes.
9. POOP-SNIFFING PUPS
Dogs are renowned for their ability to find lost people, but they can also help biologists track endangered species. Handlers have taught canines to detect the poop of wolverines, right whales, giant anteaters, gorillas, and all sorts of other creatures, giving scientists more insight into the natural world.
10. BED BUG DOGS
Here’s another way that dogs use their noses to do good. Bed bugs can cause itching and misery, and they also make a musty smell. Some exterminators use trained dogs to sniff out these household pests. If you’d like to enlist the services of a bed bug dog, be sure to do your research—poorly trained dogs may fake a discovery just to get an extra treat.
11. CHEETAH-SAVING CANINES
Cheetahs are notoriously nervous. When frightened, they’re more likely to beat a hasty retreat than to fight. To keep them calm, some zookeepers have paired cheetahs with dogs. The canines, often from animal shelters, provide companionship and keep the cats feeling safe. Dogs are helping wild cats, too; in Namibia, cheetahs sometimes prey on farm animals, so the Cheetah Conservation Fund gives guard dogs to farmers as a harmless way to deter predators.
12. DISEASE-DETECTING GAMBIAN POUCHED RATS
African giant pouched rats have tremendous powers of smell. APOPO, a Belgian nonprofit based in Tanzania, is training these rodents to cheaply and quickly detect tuberculosis in laboratory samples. In rural Angola, Gambian giant pouched rats been used to sniff out land mines.
13. NARWHAL RESEARCHERS
Narwhals are amazing arctic whales, and, like much of life on Earth, they’re at risk from the effects of a changing climate. In 2010, Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington led researchers in an effort to measure ocean temperatures in Baffin Bay using narwhals. They tagged the whales with sensors that tracked temperatures on deep dives to the seafloor, providing insight into Earth’s climate. As these kinds of sensors become smaller and cheaper, more animals are helping science by turning into data collectors.
14. GLOW WORM FLASHLIGHTS
European glow worms aren’t really worms—they’re female beetles that use light to attract mates. In the trenches of World War I, soldiers gathered them into jars and used their natural illumination to read important reports, letters, and maps.
15. KINGFISHERS AND FAST TRAINS
Japan’s famous bullet trains, or Shinkansen, can travel at an astonishing 200 miles per hour. To reach high speeds without causing too much noise, these trains must be the perfect shape to slice through the air. Designers took inspiration from the common kingfisher, a bird with a long, sharp bill that dives into water at high speed to catch its fishy prey. Bullet trains now have slender, pointed noses based on kingfisher beaks.