Dinosaur Flatulence Story Gets Blows Out of Proportion
After the paper of a recent study about dinosaur flatulence was released by researchers David Wilkinson, Graeme Ruxton, and Euan Nisbet, several news outlets including FOX News, the Daily Mail, and Gawker blew the story way out of proportion. In the paper, the researchers speculated about the digestive processes of sauropods and proposed that dinosaur flatulence might have been the result, if alternative theories couldn’t be supported. They also proposed that the dinosaur flatulence would have caused warming of their environment. Although the researchers had not mentioned extinction in the article, multiple news sources claimed that the study suggested that dinosaurs went extinct from the warmer climate.
Sauropods Biology and Dinosaur Flatulence?
Sauropods are the well known infraorder of saurischian, or “lizard-hipped”, dinosaurs which includes the popular genera of Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus. Sauropod fossils have been found on every continent, even current day Antarctica, so paleontologists have many specimens from which to learn about the great herbivorous, quadrupeds. However, they remain largely undecided about how sauropods digested their plant-based diet. Sauropod teeth were too small for chewing or mashing up food, although they would have been able to pluck and grip plants, so it is unclear how they were able to break down the massive amounts of food they required. One theory has been that gastroliths were used, which are swallowed stones that aided in digestion, but recent reviews of the fossil evidence doesn’t substantiate that idea. An alternative theory has been proposed by some paleontologists, like Wilkinson et all, that microorganisms may break down ingested plant matter. The study then pointed out that methane could be produced from that process, which would result in sauropod flatulence.
Could Dinosaur Flatulence have contributed to a Warmer Climate?
David Wilkinson and the other authors of the study theorized that sauropod emissions could have had a warming effect on the prehistoric world since gas from livestock today contribute greenhouse gases to global warming. To test their theory, researchers looked at the estimated population size of sauropods, according to fossil records, and compared it with the estimate of methane produced from each dinosaur. They had to look at rabbits and guinea pigs, which have similar diets to sauropods but on a much smaller scale. Researchers compared with these unlikely animals because modern avian relatives of dinosaurs don’t produce flatulence. Based on estimates, it was found that sauropods would have produced 520 million metric tons of methane a year. This is about the same amount that humans are currently putting into the atmosphere, so they concluded that dinosaur farts could have played a part in the warm climate the animals lived in.
The Danger in Getting Carried Away
Other paleontologists have pointed out that the analysis in this case is not as conclusive as it would seem. Although the authors of this study weren’t the first to suggest that dinosaurs emitted gas, their premises still contain lofty assumptions, such as the estimates of sauropod populations worldwide. To make matters worse, there have been several news reports that make the assumptions of sauropod populations seem conservative. Fox news reported, “Dinosaurs may have farted themselves to extinction, according to a new study from British scientists.” But the study didn’t even mention extinction. Such headlines show how easy it is to get carried away with speculation about dinosaurs. Even paleontologists often don’t agree with each others theories, but at least they have direct access to the evidence. And it is probably best to leave the lofty speculations to them. For now there really is no telling how dinosaur flatulence influenced the environment, if it even did at all.