As a person who is a history buff, as well as a dog lover, I sat up and took notice the other day when I saw an article from National Geographic that claims that dogs may soon be sniffing out the answers to one of history’s big mysteries this summer. I think most people know of Amelia Earhart, one of the first female aviators, and her disappearance while she was doing what she loved. Her fate is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of our time.
In 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Noonan disappeared while making a flight around the world. Their aircraft disappeared as they flew over the Pacific Ocean and they were never heard or seen from again. After they left New Guinea on the most difficult part of their voyage, they were supposed to land on Howland Island, 2,227 nautical miles away. The U.S. Coast Guard was receiving sporadic radio contact from her and they knew that she was lost and running low on fuel. After that, they disappeared and despite a lot of searching, she, her navigator and the Lockheed airplane that she was flying were never seen again.
Through the years, many theories have been presented as to where they went down and what happened to them. There have been searches of the ocean for wreckage of the aircraft as well as searches of tiny islands. No sign of them has ever turned up. Now, an expedition that has one of the best chances of finding them has been started by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
One of the resources at TIGHAR’s disposal is a team of four bone sniffing Border Collies. These specially trained forensic dogs are very adept at finding human bones, even those that have been left for many years. Their noses do something that no human invention so far can come even close to doing. They will be testing the Nikumaroro hypothesis, which states that when Earhart and Noonan couldn’t find their way to Howland Island, they landed on the small, uninhabited island of Nikumaroro. There is a lot of evidence to suggest this as a logical possibility. Rescue boats that went by the island saw signs of habitation, but they thought all islands in the area were inhabited at that time. If the plane landed in the water or sank in, they wouldn’t have seen it. They did see signs of a campfire, but passed by thinking it was someone who lived there. The belief is that they lived there for some time as castaways, surviving on fish, turtles, clams, seabirds and rainwater before dying there.
TIGHAR has launched twelve missions in search of Amelia Earhart. This one is believed to have the best chance of finding her because of all the research and factual evidence that point to someone having been there. In 1940, during the end of Britain’s empire, an attempt was made to colonize the island. Thirteen bones were found there and sent to Fiji where they were measured and then lost. There were also stories of plane wreckage being seen. Researchers believe they know where the bones were found on the tiny island and if thirteen were found, that leaves 193 left to be discovered. That’s where the dogs come in.
The dogs work for the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF). They have found bones buried as deep as nine feet deep and over 1,500 years old. The National Geographic Society is sponsoring the team of four Border Collies, Berkeley, Piper, Marcy and Kayle, so they can travel to the island and do what they do best. They have a lot of obstacles to overcome. The trip to get there won’t be easy. They will have a Transatlantic flight followed by a week long ocean voyage from Fiji to get there. They’ll also be working in less than ideal conditions. The island has dense underbrush and is hot and humid. That is a challenge for dogs to work in.
If they do find bones, they will be shipped back to the United States for DNA comparison. Earhart has a living relative to compare to, although Noonan does not. If they find any bones, however, I think it will cause a big stir and it seems likely that there’s a good chance they could belong to the lost aviators.
I’ve seen the amazing things that dogs can do with their noses, so I believe that it’s very possible this endeavor could be successful. I doubt that we’ll ever be able to replicate the highly tuned noses of canines in any kind of man made technology, and I have to wonder why we would want to. There’s nothing like seeing a dog work using its nose, and there’s certainly nothing like working with a dog. Running through the jungle with handheld device doesn’t seem nearly as thrilling to me as the prospect of making a huge discovery like this would be with a dog.
The team starts their journey on June 24. I am planning to follow their journey to see if it’s successful. It would be nice to see the mystery solved and questions finally answered, and even better if these dogs get to take credit for the find.