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May 07 2012

The reports of dinosaurs dying of farts are greatly exaggerated

No, dinosaurs did not fart themselves to death. This is what happens when you get your information from Fox News.

Dinosaurs may have farted themselves to extinction, according to a new study from British scientists.

The researchers calculated that the prehistoric beasts pumped out more than 520 million tons (472 million tonnes) of methane a year — enough to warm the planet and hasten their own eventual demise.

Until now, an asteroid strike and volcanic activity around 65 million years ago had seemed the most likely cause of their extinction.

So I read the paper. The researchers didn’t say that at all. There is nothing about extinction in the paper; it would have been ridiculous and I was prepared to dismiss such a claim without even reading the paper (the Jurassic lasted 55 million years, the Cretaceous 80 million, with dinosaurs farting away throughout). But the paper makes no such claim, instead suggesting that the mass of herbivores during the Mesozoic would have made a substantial, but stable, contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that may have been partially responsible for the warmer, moister climate of the era and the greater primary production.

Take together, our calculations suggest that sauropod dinosaurs could potentially have played a significant role in influencing climate through their methane emissions. Even if our 520 Tg estimate is overstated by a factor of 2, it suggests that global methane emission from Mesozoic sauropods alone was capable of sustaining an atmospheric methane mixing ratio of 1 to 2 ppm. Equally, our estimate may be understated by a similar factor, (i.e. possibly supporting 4 ppm methane). In the warm wet Mesozoic world, wetlands, forest fires, and leaking gasfields may have added around another 4 ppm methane to the air. Thus, a Mesozoic methane mixing ratio of 6–8 ppm seems very plausible.

The Mesozoic trend to sauropod gigantism led to the evolution of immense microbial vats unequalled in modern land animals. Methane was probably important in Mesozoic greenhouse warming. Our simple proof-of-concept model suggests greenhouse warming by sauropod megaherbivores could have been significant in sustaining warm climates. Although dinosaurs are unique in the large body sizes they achieved, there may have been other occasions in the past where animal-produced methane contributed substantially to global environmental gas composition: for example, it has been speculated that the extinction of megafauna coincident with human colonisation of the Americas may be related to a reduction of atmospheric methane levels.

See? A reasonable conclusion, not Fox News sensationalism.

But here’s the information you really wanted to know: they estimate that a medium-sized sauropod would have farted out 2675 liters of gas a day. Happy now? Impressed?


Wilkinson DM, Nisbet EG, Ruxton GD (2012) Could methane produced by sauropod dinosaurs have helped drive Mesozoic climate warmth? Current Biology 22(9):292-293.

49 comments

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  1. 1
    Amphiox

    You know whats really mind boggling about this?

    The fact that FOX News would actually report that a greenhouse gas can cause warming and that a mass extinction can be caused by global warming from greenhouse gas production.

  2. 2
    conradbebbington

    @Amphiox

    Maybe they’re going to post an article discrediting this story later on. Then they can use it as an example of shoddy practices in global climate science. They can conveniently forget the fact that they wrote in the exaggerations.

  3. 3
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    But here’s the information you really wanted to know: they estimate that a medium-sized sauropod would have farted out 2675 liters of gas a day.

    Fortunately dinosaur farts smell like roses.

  4. 4
    richardelguru

    I’ve now got this image of jet (rocket??) propelled sauropods sailing through the air.
    Help….

  5. 5
    Bronze Dog

    But here’s the information you really wanted to know: they estimate that a medium-sized sauropod would have farted out 2675 liters of gas a day. Happy now? Impressed?

    What are the conditions behind that volume? Are we talking about 2675 liters of compressed gas inside the dinosaur, or is that volume what the gas would disperse into in the surrounding atmosphere?

  6. 6
    adriana

    Amphiox: you get the “Comment of the week” first prize! :-)

  7. 7
  8. 8
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    The 2675 L of gas corresponds to about 1.8 kg of methane.

  9. 9
    kreativekaos

    Hmmm… (calculating)….

    1 Sauropod in my back yard (properly connected) = approximately 30%-40% of my monthly natural gas fuel bill.

    (Wondering who could hook me up some dino DNA and an experimental biologist to make this work…)

  10. 10
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    But here’s the information you really wanted to know: they estimate that a medium-sized sauropod would have farted out 2675 liters of gas a day

    I’ll file that little tidbit away for the next time I appear on Jeopardy!.

  11. 11
    feralboy12

    Maybe they’re going to post an article discrediting this story later on. Then they can use it as an example of shoddy practices in global climate science.

    Or maybe they’ll use it as another example of “nature” causing climate change, with the same sort of exaggeration they use when talking about volcanoes.
    Or trees, which of course fart more than cars.

  12. 12
    Glen Davidson

    Hoatzins presumably are keeping up the noble tradition, although not enough to affect the climate much.

    Glen Davidson

  13. 13
    holytape

    It’s basically another anti-global warming story. They think that if they compare green house gasses to farts, somehow that makes all of the current science silly. It’s the How dangerous can green house gases be anyways if dinosaur farts were worse? mentality.

    Little known fact, Rush Limbaugh’s peak output of gas was recorded at 2598 liters/day. (He had five super-sized bean burritos and then started talking about women’s rights.) So not only is Rush’s gas output within the sauropod range, but his brain size/ body mass index is within the typical sauropod distribution.

  14. 14
    Glen Davidson

    As if global warming is the only way that dinosaur farts could kill them off.

    Glen Davidson

  15. 15
    Lars

    They think that if they compare green house gasses to farts, somehow that makes all of the current science silly.

    I’m afraid you’re right.

    And if you are, the most frightning thing about it all isn’t that Fox underestimates their audience, it’s that they don’t.

  16. 16
    David Marjanović

    So… based on that paper, we’d expect the Mesozoic to have been uniformly warm, and we’d expect the temperature to have dropped right after it ended, right?

    Because neither of these happened. The Mesozoic contained cool episodes with plenty of sauropods, and the temperature did not change at the end of the Mesozoic – and then, the early and middle Eocene was even warmer than the Paleocene.

  17. 17
    unclefrogy

    I would think that for dinosaurs farts to have a significant effect on the atmosphere there would have to be a significant population farting. Are there any reliably estimates on populations and how did they derive them?

    What many people do not seem to understand (fox listeners/viewers) is not everything will be adversely effected global warming just mostly us and our coastal cities and our existing farming areas, die offs and dislocations aside. there will be plenty of things that will thrive.
    the ignorance and the lack of any real interest in climate change generally and fox news specifically is appalling.

    uncle frogy

  18. 18
    iknklast

    I just received a copy of that information – dinos farting their way to extinction – from a friend who found it on Reuters. What do you know – I sent him a link to this blog! Thanks, PZ, I needed a good rebuttal, since I’m always getting Huffpo nonsense and other silly woo from this person, who apparently believes everything he reads.

  19. 19
    robro

    Not discounting the sinister climate-denying angle, but there is also the possibility that the “writers” at Fox Anti-news are just juvenile enough to do a piece where they get to use the word “fart” and make jokes about how they can kill. hahahaha.

  20. 20
    walterguyll

    You make much of Fox News reporting this but much the same comes from the Huffington Post, New Scientist, Red Orbit, The Toronto Sun, Slate Magazine, Live Science and others.
    Not that I’m a Fox Fan but you may be leaning on your hobby horse.

  21. 21
    Draken

    If I may vent my opinion, it’s a breath of fresh air that Fox recognises the effect of Sauropogenic Global Warming. Re. them blowing this out of proportion as the cause of exctinction of the dinosaurs, they couldn’t be farther from the truth.

  22. 22
    Ing

    Is that why they changed their chirality and built space ships?

  23. 23
    Thomas Holtz

    Was just talking with a report with the AP. HOPEFULLY they can add the reality check issue to this.

    As a dinosaur paleontologist by training and interest, and a climate change lecturer by departmental fiat, I find the paper interesting. But as I mentioned to the reporter, you have to deal with sources, sinks, and fluxes to figure out the net amount of GHGs in the atmosphere in a given time. Determining the size of a particular factor is important; however, that might not be the most important factor and you need to deal with the others going into and out of the atmosphere as well.

    After all, human contribution to present day GHGs are not actually that large compared to many natural ones; BUT they add to a net increase because we have not generated sufficient new fluxes out of the atmosphere at anything like the rate we have with industrial and agricultural contributions of carbon dioxide and methane.

  24. 24
    JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness

    You make much of Fox News reporting this but much the same comes from the Huffington Post, New Scientist, Red Orbit, The Toronto Sun, Slate Magazine, Live Science and others.
    Not that I’m a Fox Fan but you may be leaning on your hobby horse.

    Dumbass.
    Pay attention there has been plenty of post about other “news” places, including 3 about HuffPo recently.

  25. 25
    abbadd0n

    Fox doing a science story,is it April fools day again?

  26. 26
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Thomas Holtz, while your efforts are appreciated, you have to remember that giant media orgs don’t particularly care how accurate the “news” they report is. They want the attention of readers, listeners, and viewers so that they can sell advertising. And the heads of those organizations are seeking to mold public opinion for their own benefit. This is especially true of Faux Noize (whether walterguyii wants to acknowledge it or not).

  27. 27
    PZ Myers

    Holtz: Yes — the paper discusses the output side, but doesn’t have any calculations of carbon sequestration, so it’s missing half the story.

  28. 28
    David Marjanović

    If I may vent my opinion, it’s a breath of fresh air

    GAH! I smell what you did there!

  29. 29
    kreativekaos

    Even given aforementioned large amount of methane produced by dinos, presumably, the much greater amount of vegetation on the planet then would account for a greater carbon-sink to the dinos contribution.
    (Also, doesn’t the latest climatological data support that present natural sources do not even meet anthropogenic sources??)

  30. 30
    RFW

    There may be a carefully concealed agenda in this faux news article: it will give ammunition to the crazies who think tyrannosaurs and other raptorial dinos were vegetarians. This somehow links into support for creationism, but I’m afraid I am incapable of following the anti-logic involved.

  31. 31
    'Tis Himself

    The 2675 L of gas corresponds to about 1.8 kg of methane.

    Remember, folks, that methane is a colorless, odorless gas. However I suspect dinofarts would be loaded with enough homemade ketones and aldehydes to make an outhouse smell like Shalimar.

  32. 32
    Synfandel

    This report is part of a global conspiracy among liberal environmental scientists. Dinosaurs were saddled and ridden by Noah’s ancestors three thousand years ago. And they smelled nice.

  33. 33
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    He who smelt it, and so forth.

  34. 34
    Alex

    It’s basically another anti-global warming story. They think that if they compare green house gasses to farts, somehow that makes all of the current science silly.

    It makes both climate science and evolution sound silly to the Fox audience, so it’s a science denial double whammy.

  35. 35
    John Horstman

    So… Jurassic Park would allow us to generate enough methane to solve the energy crisis? More funding for resurrecting the sauropods!

  36. 36
    Alex

    John Horstman,
    We currently have the same problem with our very own late holocene cows. Or in other words, if you found a way to funnel all the bad, bad methane produced by meat farming, you would be on to something big.

  37. 37
    bobh

    Regarding Walterguyll’s post about other news outlets that misreported the story, along with Fox:

    I just checked over 50 reports, and the only ones getting it wrong were Fox, the New York Post and The Inquisitor.

    The other outlets mentioned reported the story accurately: they write that the new research paper concluded that dinosaur emissions were a significant contributor to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Amazingly, even the infamous World Weekly News reported it correctly!

    Of course, it’s possible that they all really did make the same mistake and then corrected the web versions of their stories later. But don’t think that’s likely.

  38. 38
    jonnyscaramanga

    @holytape (#13) Well played, sir.

    @rfw (#30). The dino-vegetarian-Creationism link is this (if you care):

    Creationists believe dinosaurs were in the garden of Eden with Adam (well, a lot of them do)

    They believe there was no death before the first sin. Which means no animals could eat each other.

    Therefore, before Eve ate the apple, all animals were vegetarians. I imagine T-Rex found his teeth poorly equipped for the task, but that’s intelligent design for ya.

  39. 39
    Weedless Monkey

    walterguyll

    You make much of Fox News reporting this but much the same comes from the Huffington Post, New Scientist, Red Orbit, The Toronto Sun, Slate Magazine, Live Science and others.
    Not that I’m a Fox Fan but you may be leaning on your hobby horse.

    All the sources you listed reported the paper as it was.

    Fox News invented dinosaur extinction on top of it.

  40. 40
    David Marjanović

    Remember, Faux Noise is the corporation that fought in court for its right to lie… and won.

    homemade ketones and aldehydes

    And thiols.

  41. 41
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    And thiols.

    And dimethyldisulfide.

  42. 42
    helenkrummenacker

    How many liters of methane comes from the same mass of cows or pigs?

  43. 43
  44. 44
    w00dview

    It makes both climate science and evolution sound silly to the Fox audience, so it’s a science denial double whammy.

    Which is exactly why I do not dare go into the comments section of this story. It would be too much dumbassery to handle.

  45. 45
    ericferguson

    THANK GOD for FOX NEWS, or you would not be reading this. I am sure this is part of the liberals EPA policy to tout how bad animals and humans fart so much. Probably a upcoming Obama policy to extend abortion policies.

    Oh if you really need to know what a Dinosaur fart smells like, just get close to a liberal or Obama. They stink like hell.

    No more NEO LIBS.

  46. 46
    octopod

    Does this seem legit to you, Dr. Marjanović? I really don’t trust mammal-based estimates of sauropod methane output — looking up chicken gut microflora as compared to rabbit right now, but it’s got to be fairly different.

    Is there any suggestion of what kind of gut setup sauropods might have had, for that matter? I know they had gastroliths like everyone else, but as far as stomachs, length of intestines, etc.

  47. 47
    David Marjanović

    Does this seem legit to you, Dr. Marjanović?

    I haven’t read the paper… and I have no idea about the prokaryotes in the guts of herbivorous birds, nor do I know if it’s a good idea to just extrapolate from those any more than from mammals.

    What I can say I said in comment 16.

    I know they had gastroliths like everyone else

    But they didn’t use them. Find Oliver Wings on Google Scholar.

    The internal organs of sauropods are, of course, unknown (except for the air sacs that left traces in lots of bones).

  48. 48
    truebutnotuseful

    ericferguson wrote @ #45:

    THANK GOD for FOX NEWS, or you would not be reading this.

    Except for, y’know, all the other news outlets reporting on the paper.

    I am sure this is part of the liberals EPA policy to tout how bad animals and humans fart so much.

    Ah yes, that super socialist liberal EPA which was begun by Richard Nixon, the most socialist and liberal of Republican presidents.

    Probably a upcoming Obama policy to extend abortion policies.

    Does not follow from your premise. Please re-state less stupidly.

    Oh if you really need to know what a Dinosaur fart smells like, just get close to a liberal or Obama. They stink like hell.

    ‘Obama’s a doodyhead! Conservatives rule, liberals drool! Goooooooo team!’

    No more NEO LIBS.

    No more thinking-averse neuron-deficient FOX-fellating conservative bleatpuppets.

  49. 49
    ChasCPeterson

    I really don’t trust mammal-based estimates of sauropod methane output — looking up chicken gut microflora as compared to rabbit right now, but it’s got to be fairly different.

    Totally different. Chickens are insecto-granivores. The only folivorous bird is the hoatzin, and it’s also the only known non-mamml with foregut fermentation. (Geese eat grass, but don’t do much fermentation at all, relying on quantity and rapid throughput to live mostly on the cell contents.)
    The microflora of herbivorous turtles and lizards is pretty well characterized, and I don’t think there’s any reason to suspect them of being very different from that of mammals, methane-wise.

    Is there any suggestion of what kind of gut setup sauropods might have had, for that matter?

    yes, they were almost certainly hindgut fermenters. The recent book by Klein et al, looks to have a fuller, more up-to-date treatment.

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