For a long time, biologist thought that kangaroos weren't big farters. Or at least, not big methane producing farters. It was believed to be either due to their diet, or their unique gut flora. It was an important fact—in Australia animal flatulence is a big problem. An astounding 71 percent of our methane emissions come from ruminant livestock (cows and sheep). Considering methane is the cause of 25 percent of manmade global warming, it's not a great look for us. But researchers had previously thought that by studying the micro-organisms in kangaroo's stomachs they could replicate them in ruminants and hopefully cut down their methane output.
That was until this week, when a group of biologists lead by Dr Adam Munn from the University of Wollongong revealed kangaroos do produce methane. Actually, they produce quite a bit.
Before we go on, there is no way you'll be able to concentrate until we explain how scientists catch kangaroo farts so let's get that out of the way now. Dr Munn, who describes roos as lovely and gentle animals to work with, placed the animals, one at a time, in a large sealed room. His team measured the air going in and coming out. As the kangas laid around relaxing they monitored the methane levels of the air being sucked out of the room compared to the air they pumped in.
Their results were a huge downer for anyone who thought native animal farts were going to be a key to managing methane emissions, and the environmental chaos they cause.
As Dr Munn explained to VICE, "There was an idea they were a methane-less animal. And that's not the case." They found that taking their size, metabolic rate, and carbon dioxide production into consideration, their methane output was relative to horses. In one moment, our dreams of less farty cows and sheep were dashed.
But Dr Munn isn't too dejected, he's actually pretty stoked to finally understand what is happening with the animal's guts. He reminds us that while horses sound like a bad signifier, that's still a lot less gas than ruminants produce: "While they do produce more methane than we though, the average population of kangaroos is over 35 million, and they still only contribute only about one percent of the totally methane output."
With this new information, he has a new plan for how kangaroos can still help us cut down the impact from fart-laden livestock. He's now advocating that, "If we reduce our reliance on sheep and cattle, can we balance it by increasing our use of wildlife for commercial enterprises." Basically, a lot of our reliance on cows could be absorbed my roos.
Continuing, Dr Munn theories, "There is a boutique market for kangaroo meat for human consumption, and its becoming more common for the general public. The other market is the pet food industry." Kangaroo skins and hides also produce a very fine, but very tough leather that could be used in place of cow products. "There are 53 species (of kangaroos) and of those only four are commercially harvested. It's been shown that harvesting those 'roo populations is entirely sustainable," he continues. Additionally, subbing kangas into commercial farming would also lessen grazing pressure, as they contribute .3 percent of the damage that sheep do.
There is no doubt that some biologist are bummed out today, as the illusion of these methane free natives is dashed, but at least there is a light at the end of the gassy tunnel. As Dr Munn concludes, "The market for beef is going to go up with China's development, but if we can increase our use of kangaroos, it will provide the opportunity to use the wildlife in a way to increase sustainability and biodiversity."
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