What animal farts—yes, animal farts—can teach us about climate change

There are some surprising links between flatulating fauna and environmental issues.
There are some surprising links between flatulating fauna and environmental issues.
Image: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader
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We’re constantly surrounded by doom-and-gloom news about our planet:  the best case climate change scenario is looking increasingly unlikely, and animal populations have declined by 50% on average globally.

As a zoologist, I think we all need some relief from time to time. While’s it’s important that we understand just how serious these planetary threats are, I’m sure many people both in and outside of science feel overwhelmed by the daily bad news about the state of our natural world.

We’re also becoming increasingly becoming disconnected from our natural world—it’s hard to save something if you don’t know it exists. I strongly believe that as people learn about animals and their strange and hilarious habits, they will be more inclined to want to make sure wildlife exists on this planet long into the future.

That’s why I love writing about animal farts.

While we often expect nature to be beautiful and majestic, once you start working with animals, you quickly realize that a lot of their behavior is actually fairly disgusting—and often very entertaining.

While many species and ecosystems are under threat, there are still incredible animals doing amazing things all around us, in all sorts of unexpected places. There’s the pearlfish, which lives inside the butt of a sea cucumber; a number of snake species that fart to deter predators; or even the fact elephants have to eat their mother’s poo to gain the gut bacteria needed to digest their food (a trait I think we can all be glad isn’t shared by humans).

Some people see writing about gross animal habits as a waste of time. I’ve been told I should be spending my time curing cancer instead—which would be a little difficult for someone who has no biomedical training—and have been asked if I really want to be known for farts. But I see my weird niche as a way to share the joy I feel when I see animals doing ridiculous things, and the excitement I feel when I read an interesting scientific paper documenting a new animal behavior.

What animal farts can teach us about climate change

While farts may seem far removed from the biggest environmental issues of our time, there are actually some surprising links.

As someone who studies climate change, I have lost count of the time I have been asked about cow farts and how they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The truth of the matter is that most of the methane cows emit actually comes from burps, not farts. However, our demand for beef contributes significantly to both climate change and habitat loss. By telling people about this through the medium of fart science, we are able to raise awareness on how cutting down on eating beef can help the planet. I even got invited onto a documentary about climate change to talk about cow farts, and have fact-checked the topic for the Associated Press!

That said, most of the time, working in science is a pretty serious business. Despite the field of zoology often being portrayed as a glamorous job involving lots of work in exotic locations studying exciting animals (as well as a lot of hugging animals that really should not be being hugged!), most of the day-to-day work that goes on is quite similar to most people’s day jobs at a computer: doing data entry, statistical analyses, and writing scientific papers.

But sometimes when you work with animals, you can become a victim of this data gathering. Every herpetologist will tell you of the time they got pooped on by a snake, and every ornithologist will have tales of being puked on by seabirds. This is how these animals defend themselves from predators (and another trait that I’m thankful humans don’t share).

For us scientists who study the natural world, much of the data we are working with tells a pretty upsetting story—one of habitat loss, climate change, and even extinction. One important aspect of our job is communicating our findings with other scientists and non-scientists alike, which is mostly done through the medium of scientific papers.

But if we’re being honest, most people would agree that the vast majority of scientific papers are both dry and pretty challenging to read. Most of us are not going to sit down on a Saturday evening and bury their head in a 7,300 word paper entitled “The adhesive skin exudate of Notaden bennetti frogs (Anura: Limnodynastidae) has similarities to the prey capture glue of Euperipatoides sp. velvet worms (Onychophora: Peripatopsidae)”—not even scientists. But these kinds of papers contain some exciting, intriguing, and downright astonishing facts about our natural world.

The previously mentioned paper, for example, gives evidence of two very different organisms—the velvet worm and a species of rather rotund Australian frog—independently evolving the same way of creating the sticky glues that each species produces. Each developed this dermal feature for a very different reason: the worm uses it to catch its prey, whereas the frog uses it to deter predators.

Many people read my books who didn’t have a previous interest in science and the natural world, never mind amphibian skin or worm slime—they just want something funny and light-hearted to put in their guest toilet, or give to their dad on Father’s Day. But if teaching someone the science and facts behind animal flatulence, poop, or slime makes them more interested in the natural world around them, then I’ve done my job as a science communicator—and a global citizen.

Making people laugh has value in giving people positive emotions about the environment and nature. If even one person picks up our books and is inspired to help the natural world, then I am more than happy to be known for farts for the rest of my life.