All of us who share our lives with a canine who spends what feels like hours deciphering all the gossip on the local lamppost, know firsthand just how much our bff is led by his/her nose. A dog’s sense of smell is apparently from 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than ours. Imagine that amount of odour-info bombarding your little doggy brain.
When humans pick up on spectacular abilities in nonhumans we could never match, we are quick to enrol them into our service, almost always, sadly, to the detriment of the animal involved. Dogs’ nasal capabilities are no exception. Sniffer dogs, mostly deployed in law enforcement of one sort or another, get sent into frighteningly perilous situations – better lose a dog than a man/woman, right? At least, that’s the culturally accepted view.
“Of course, the downside [of dogs’ amazing sense of smell] is that while saving human lives, sniffing out explosives is extremely dangerous for the dogs.”
392 days ago today a beautiful Belgian shepherd dog fell victim to man’s inhumanity to man, and yes, to man’s sense of entitlement over Planet Earth and all nonhumans on it. Last November, in a raid on the Paris bombers’ flat, the French police sent their service dog on ahead to sniff out explosives. She never made it through the door. She was shot dead by a terrorist. And she was just 7 years old. Remember Diesel?
Well, there’s nothing so passé as yesterday’s news, and Diesel was soon forgotten.
But this week’s good news brings the lovely girl to mind once again. It’s heartening, but at the same time utterly sad for Diesel that today there would no longer be a ‘need’ to expose her to such danger. Wind the clock forward 392 days and she would still be alive to enjoy all the years of life Father Time intended for her.
How so? Because scientists at America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology have perfected a 3D-printed model of a dog’s snout. And unbelievably, it is even better than the real thing.
If dogs only knew – perhaps they do, who knows – they would pity our pathetic sense of smell. Birds of prey would despise our feeble eyesight – “Can’t you even spot a rabbit 3 miles away from a height of 15,000 ft? Good grief.” And the immortal jellyfish Turritopsis nutricula would surely be thinking, “What do you mean, you die? You just cease to exist? What’s wrong with you!”
But one thing we humans are reasonably good at is sussing out exactly how clever creatures do the astounding things they do. Sometimes. Our biomimicry skills do draw the line at immortality.
The new artificial dog’s nose is far from being the first payoff from our ‘industrial espionage’ on the animals.
In the 2008 Olympics, gold medallist Michael Phelps created quite a splash with his go-faster swimwear mimicking sharkskin. (Now banned in major competitions.) Sharks’ skin under a microscope reveals countless tiny overlapping scales called dermal denticles, which disrupt turbulence and make for smoother faster gliding through the water. Reproduced in Phelp’s speedos.
And architect Mick Pearce’s lightbulb moment came from contemplating, of all things, termite mounds and the ventilation ‘chimneys’ the little insects form for internal temperature control. The result? His groundbreaking design for a green shopping centre/office block in Zimbabwe. The Eastgate Centre has no conventional air-conditioning or heating but thanks to Mick’s piracy of the termites’ know-how, the eco building maintains a constant comfortable temperature.
Nor is The Nose the only example of 3D printing to copy animal features or abilities.
One of the most improbable has to be synthetic rhino horn which, amazingly, is said to be indistinguishable from the real thing. The intention of making this seemingly bizarre product is to flood the market, bring down the sky-high price the horn commands, and by making the trade a lot less profitable for the black marketeers, reduce the incidence of poaching.
That would benefit a whole species, but 3D printing is also being used to benefit individual animals. The technology makes it possible to produce tailor-made prosthetics, like a shell for Cleopatra the tortoise, genetically unable to form her own, and a new beak for Grecia the toucan – the one he was born with was smashed by a gang of youths.
How heartwarming it is to see examples like these, developed purely in the interests of the nonhumans, rather than is so much more often the case, for human convenience.
But back to The Nose.
How would you even go about making a ‘fake’ dog’s nose that works? It sounds about as far-fetched as fake rhino horn. But it’s for real.
It’s all about the unique shape of dogs’ nostrils it seems, and the way that affects the fluid dynamics of the breathed air – a felicitous benefit of evolution with which my canine companion tests my patience to the limit on a daily basis. Mechanical engineer Matthew Staymates outlines the science for us in this brilliant brief video:
This is The Nose that will rapidly propel Diesel’s bomb-sniffing canine colleagues straight into happy retirement, we hope.
I just wish it had come in time to save that beautiful girl too.