Science Monday, May 7th 2012 at 12:58 pm

Scientists Calculate How Much Methane Dinosaurs Farted Out Per Year

Methane is a leading greenhouse gas, and the producers of methane — including cows and other ruminants — are often singled out as a possible contributor to global climate change. However, it seems that they may not have been the first to do so. A new study published in Current Biology has pegged the entire output of giant sauropod dinosaurs at around 520 million tons of gas every year.

The study was motivated not so much by sophomoric curiosity — though that’s why we’re writing about it — but because the temperature during the Mesozoic Era was some 18ºF warmer than it is today. Though sauropods were not the only producer of methane gas, researchers figured that if the methane production of modern day cows is problematic, the output of enormous dinosaurs would be potent as well.

Cows are an important part of this research. While we have a pretty solid understanding of the methane output of cows, our understanding of sauropod output is limited by their having died out millions of years ago. However, we do have a pretty good idea of the size of sauropods — which include the enormous Brachiosaurus among others. In the study, scientists simply scaled-up the methane production from cow-size to Brachiosaur size and ran the numbers.

They found that, as a whole, sauropods pooted out some 520 million tons of methane each year. In an amazing coincidence, that is almost the exact same as the current output of all methane on Earth each year. Cattle, for their part, are responsible for only 50 to 100 million tons of that methane.

Of course, our interest in this story was piqued by dinosaur farts. For researchers, however, the focus is on the little guys. David Wilkinson of John Moore’s University, an author of the study, told the BBC:

“Although it’s the dinosaur element that captures the popular imagination with this work, actually it is the microbes living in the dinosaurs guts that are making the methane.”

And how!

Of course, this number is only an estimate, and basing the fart-tonnage off cows may prove to be inaccurate. However, it’s a starting point in piecing together this surprising, and no doubt odiferous, piece of Earth’s history.

(BBC via Gizmodo, image via Wikimedia)

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