Piper, one of four forensic dogs that will search for clues to Amelia Earhart's disappearance 80 years ago, sniffs for human bones while training in California.
Nearly 80 years ago, on July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea, in a Lockheed Electra 10E on one of the last legs of their around-the-world flight. They were aiming for tiny Howland Island just north of the equator. They couldn’t find it, and despite many attempts, no one has been able to find them.
The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy scoured the area by ship and plane for two weeks. George Putnam, Earhart’s husband, enlisted civilian mariners to continue the hunt. Over the years, enthusiasts have looked for signs of Earhart or her plane in the Marshall Islands, on Saipan, and deep underwater.
But the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart may be as close as it’s ever been to being solved. An expedition organized by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) sets sail on June 24 from Fiji. On board will be a team that’s proved astonishingly adept at locating human remains—specially trained forensic dogs.
The expedition’s destination is Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island some 1,000 miles north of Fiji. The members of TIGHAR have devoted the last three decades to testing what they call the Nikumaroro hypothesis—that when Earhart and Noonan couldn’t find Howland, they landed on Nikumaroro.
TIGHAR has launched 12 missions in search of Earhart. “This expedition is less of a shot in the dark than any expedition we’ve had,” says Tom King, TIGHAR’S senior archaeologist.
The coral atoll is 350 nautical miles southwest of Howland, on the line of position (157 NW 337 SE) that Earhart identified in her last confirmed radio message. Up the northwest line, there’s nothing but empty ocean for thousands of miles. To the southeast are the Phoenix Islands, which include Nikumaroro. “If you don’t know where you are,” says Ric Gillespie, the executive director of TIGHAR, “that’s the logical direction to head.”
Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, has a reef flat where Earhart could have landed the Electra during low tide. More intriguingly, when the island was temporarily colonized in 1940, during the last gasp of the British Empire, 13 bones were discovered, shipped to Fiji, measured—and subsequently lost. The colonial administrator suspected they might be Earhart's, and the TIGHAR researchers suspect they know the site where the bones were found.
“There’s real potential for there to be more bones there,” says King. “There are 193 bones unaccounted for.”
That’s where the dogs come in. Human remains detection dogs from the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF) have nosed out burial sites as deep as nine feet and as old as 1,500 years. “No other technology is more sophisticated than the dogs,” says Fred Hiebert, archaeologist in residence at the National Geographic Society, which is sponsoring the canines. “They have a higher rate of success identifying things than ground-penetrating radar.”
But this mission will be a challenge. The dogs—four border collies named Berkeley, Piper, Marcy, and Kayle—will have to endure a trans-Pacific flight as well as a nearly week-long ocean voyage to get to Nikumaroro.
The island itself is hot, covered in dense vegetation, and teeming with crabs, including coconut crabs, the world’s largest land arthropod. “The dogs are not effective when the ground temperature is over 80 degrees,” says Lynne Angeloro, vice president of ICF and Berkeley’s handler. But she thinks they’ll be able to work through and around the underbrush. “I have no doubt they’ll be able to at least get scents.”
“The crabs are our friends,” says Hiebert. Voracious scavengers, they drag booty—the remains of coconuts, say, or rats—back to their burrows. If their stash includes human bones, “that would provide the environment to retain those decomposition smells.”
The dogs alert on the scent of human bones, sitting or lying down with their paws on either side of the spot where the smell is most intense. But they can’t pinpoint the exact location of a body. “Scent, when it’s underground, comes up at the place of least resistance,” says Angeloro. That could be good distance from the actual bones, so once a dog identifies a spot, the archaeologists will excavate a wide area around it.
If TIGHAR’s team of dogs and archaeologists unearths bones, the remains will be shipped back to the United States for DNA analysis. Earhart has a living relative who could serve as a comparison. Noonan, unfortunately, does not.
Gillespie is skeptical that bones will be found and that the analysis will work. “The rats chew up bones,” he says. “DNA, in general, likes cold and dark. You’re just not going to get a lot of cold and dark on Nikumaroro.”
Hiebert is more optimistic. “If the dogs don’t find anything, we’ll have to think about what that means,” he says. Maybe the vegetation was too thick for them. Maybe the bones have been completely bleached. Maybe they were never there at all.
“But if the dogs are successful,” he says, “it will be the discovery of a lifetime.”