A Mighty Wind

By Butterworth, Trevor | Newsweek, May 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Mighty Wind


Butterworth, Trevor, Newsweek


Byline: Trevor Butterworth

Did Flatulent dinosaurs really cause climate change?

A strong wind is blowing across the field of paleontology, and it stinks. According to a short paper by three British academics, sauropods--veggie-munching dinosaurs that grew especially large in the Jurassic era--could have burped and farted enough methane into the atmosphere to have warmed the earth's climate.

The theory starts not so much with dinosaurs (none of the academics is a paleontologist), but with the microbes that enable cows to digest plant material. Since the process produces considerable quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, David Wilkinson, an environmental scientist at Liverpool John Moores University, and colleagues at the Universities of Glasgow and London "wondered what would happen with animals that are so weird by the standards of today," he says.

Their conclusion? Stand downwind of a lumbering Apatosaurus louisae, formerly known as a brontosaurus, and expect to be gassed by a 2,675-liter gale of methane per day. Model that across the world, and dinosaur flatulence produced between 500 million and 600 million tons of methane per year.

There are, however, some rather Jurassic-size caveats. "These are theoretical guesses," stresses Wilkinson. "We had no option [but] to do what I tell my students not to do, which is project." In other words, just because the average apatosaurus is four times the size of an elephant doesn't mean it's going to break four times as much wind. …

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