The entire world held its collective breath when Amelia Earhart made the first recorded attempt at a circumnavigational flight across the globe in 1937. Although the task seemed herculean at the time, Earhart’s impressive aeronautical resume certainly qualified her for the job. After all, she was the first woman to make it across the Atlantic Ocean on a solo flight, for which she received the Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. Armed Forces, and had she set a number of other speed and altitude records over the course of her career as well.
However, despite her outstanding track record as an aviator, something went terribly wrong during Earhart’s circumnavigational flight attempt. She left Miami, Florida, and made her way across South America, Africa, India, and New Guinea, signaling the completion of about two-thirds of a nearly 21,750-mile trip.
But Earhart’s departure from New Guinea for Howland Island would signal an abrupt end to the trip when her plane lost radio contact and disappeared. Numerous searches were performed, but details of the event have largely remained a mystery since the late 1930s, paving the way for plenty of theories to emerge concerning the nature of Earhart’s disappearance.
Fast-forward to today, and it looks like age-old questions about the case could soon be answered with the help of four specially trained dogs. The dogs—Berkeley, Kayle, Marcy, and Piper—are all border collies sponsored by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) and the National Geographic Society to head up the latest investigation into what ultimately happened to Amelia Earhart.
The border collies, selected for their superb forensics abilities, were sent to search for Earhart’s remains on Nikumaroro Island—an uninhabited atoll in the western Pacific where it’s believed Earhart might have crashed her plane in 1937. Researchers decided that a section of the island where a British official reportedly found bone fragments under a tree in 1940 could hold the evidence they were looking for.
The tree was discovered by another research team in 2001, along with a number of peculiar items, including a U.S.-made knife and a woman’s compact.
During the search conducted earlier this month, all four of the bone-sniffing border collies, at different times and on different days, led researchers to the same spot beneath one of the island’s trees.
Unfortunately, although all four dogs seemed to agree on the same location, the researchers could not find any bones in the area once they started digging. So it seemed that if the bones had in fact been there at some point, they had since been moved elsewhere by either a human or an animal.
Unable to find any bones, researchers instead decided to gather up some of the surrounding soil to see if laboratory testing might reveal DNA belonging to the disappeared pilot. But, given the island’s tropical climate, securing viable DNA samples 80 years after the fact seems like quite a long shot.
“That’s the story of our work,” said TIGHAR Senior Archeologist Tom King reflecting on the search. “We get intriguing clues, we pursue them, and we get skunked.”
Still, the researchers remain undeterred in their efforts to uncover the ultimate fate of Amelia Earhart, and it speaks to her legacy and her importance as a great American figure of the twentieth century that after all these years have passed, people born long after her disappearance still feel compelled to know what really happened to one of aviation’s greatest pioneers.