Did dinosaur flatulence on the part of sauropods like Apatosaurus warm the Earth? Possibly. At least, that's the main takeaway from a paper published in the latest issue of Current Biology.
But did these dinosaurs "gas themselves to extinction," as this article from Fox News reports? Let's put it this way: if they did, the researchers behind the study certainly didn't say so.
Update: At the end of this post, I have included an excerpt from a more detailed explanation that outlines why Fox News deserved to be called out. You'll find the response in its entirety, including the comment that spurred it, here.
What the paper does suggest, explains Pharyngula's PZ Myers, is that "herbivores during the Mesozoic would have made a substantial, but stable, contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that may have been partially responsible for the warmer, moister climate of the era and the greater primary production."
By comparing these sauropods' digestive systems with those of cows, the researchers conclude that the massive herbivores would have contributed as much as 520 million tons of greenhouse gasses to the Mesozoic atmosphere.
"Even if that estimate is overstated by a factor of 2," the researchers write, "it suggests that global methane emission from Mesozoic sauropods alone was capable of sustaining" an atmosphere rich in methane that was "probably important in Mesozoic greenhouse warming." They continue:
Our simple proof-of-concept model suggests greenhouse warming by sauropod megaherbivores could have been significant in sustaining warm climates. Although dinosaurs are unique in the large body sizes they achieved, there may have been other occasions in the past where animal-produced methane contributed substantially to global environmental gas composition: for example, it has been speculated that the extinction of megafauna coincident with human colonisation of the Americas may be related to a reduction of atmospheric methane levels.
Does that sound like "dinosaurs' farts drove them to extinction" to you? Of course it doesn't.
Read more on Pharyngula and Current Biology.
Fox did more than report the findings of a study, they made a false claim (that British scientists said: "Dinosaurs 'gassed' themselves into extinction') and subsequently failed to provide any evidence supporting that claim.
That evidence could have come in a variety of forms (a direct quote from the researchers who performed the study, an excerpt from the study itself, a comment from an expert in the field who was not involved in the study), but no such evidence was provided to back the claim (made first in the headline of the article and a second time in the opening graf) that the scientists concluded that these dinosaurs had gassed themselves to death.
This post stems not from a bias against Fox News, but a bias against misinformation. As of 20:00 EST on May 7th, there were upwards of 400 hits on Google News for stories about this study with accurate, measured headlines — headlines like: "Dinosaur 'gas' may have warmed prehistoric Earth" (LiveScience via CBS News); "Dinosaurs' Gaseous Emissions Warmed Earth?" (National Geographic); and "Dinosaurs' Gas May Have Helped Warm the Air" (The Wall Street Journal). The list goes on.
Other outlets may have flirted with the claim Fox News ultimately made, but they are the only major outlet — I repeat: the ONLY major outlet (and please, by all means, correct me if I'm wrong so that I can include them in the post) — reporting that the scientists who led the study conclude that these dinosaurs "gassed themselves into extinction."
To be clear: this post has nothing to do with bias toward Fox News. It has everything to do with calling out shoddy science reporting. (Read more here)