Everything you need to know about animal flatulence

Two scientists delve into the smelly world of farting animals.

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Everything you need to know about animal flatulence

Illustrations by Ethan Kocak 

 

Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti are both active on Twitter and use the social media platform to talk about their work and engage with other scientists. One fateful day Rabaiotti was asked by a family member whether snakes farted, but she was unsure of the answer.

She knew someone, however, who would definitely know: David Steen, Assistant Research Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Auburn University, Alabama, and all-round snake expert. He answered, on Twitter, “<sigh> yes”, and from there, science Twitter quickly realised that ‘does it fart?’ is a common question that animal researchers get asked.

This in turn led Caruso to create #DoesItFart and, in the true nature of science, this swiftly spawned a spreadsheet, which in turn, formed the basis for the book.

 

What is a fart? 

The medical term for a fart is ‘flatulence’, which is defined as ‘flatus expelled through the anus’. Flatus is strictly defined as gas produced during digestion – generally in the stomach and/ or gut. Today the term fart is more commonly used to describe any gas expelled from the end of an animal that is opposite to its mouth – whether this be through the anus, cloaca or a specialised duct – and if it is audible or not.

 

SNOW LEOPARD

Species Name (Species): Panthera uncia

DOES IT FART? PRESUMABLY

Snow leopards, as their common name suggests, are cold-adapted felines that can be found within mountainous regions of central and southern Asia. Compared to other felines, such as the lion or cheetah, snow leopards have small rounded ears, thick fur and stocky bodies, which all help limit heat loss; deep nasal cavities, which allow them to warm respired air; and a thick tail that they can wrap around their bodies while they sleep to stay warm.

Similar to other felines, the snow leopard is a skilful hunter and a carnivore; they use their immense paws and long tail to expertly navigate and balance on rocky cliffs to ambush their prey.

Partly due to their camouflage fur, these are elusive cats which are rarely seen or captured on film in the wild and their farts are no different – currently we have no direct confirmation of snow leopard flatulence.

However, we can safely assume that the snow leopard, like other felines, farts, and we can further speculate that, due to their thick floofy fur, these farts are likely muffled.

 

Discover 9 amazing facts about snow leopards you (probably) didn't know

 

AFRICAN WILD DOG

Scientific name (Species): Lycaon pictus

DOES IT FART? YES

 

 

The African wild dog is a highly social canid species that lives in groups of between 2 and 26 individuals. They are cooperative breeders; a single, dominant pair mates and produces pups while the rest of the pack help to raise the litter.

Wild dogs often hunt as a pack, with the whole group helping to bring down prey much bigger than themselves, including impala and wildebeest. When the pack has pups in the den they leave behind a babysitter to guard them against predators, while the rest of the pack brings back, and subsequently regurgitates, food for both the babysitter and pups.

Upon returning from the hunt the whole pack greet each other and become very excited (who wouldn’t get excited at the prospect of regurgitated meat for dinner?). One side-effect of this is that they defecate everywhere, often accompanied by bouts of flatulence.

One scientific paper from the 1950s goes as far as to note ‘an objectionable smell renders them somewhat unpleasant as household pets’ (though this is far from the only reason why this would be a bad idea).

Wild dogs smell particularly strongly even without the additional farts, but the jury is out among wild dog researchers as to whether this smell is pleasant or unpleasant.

 

SEA ANEMONE

Scientific name (Order): Actiniaria

DOES IT FART? NO

Anemones don’t have an anus, or much of a digestive system, so strictly speaking they do not fart. They have one opening into their gastrovascular cavity – the anemone equivalent of the stomach – where food is digested.

This opening, the siphonophore, does double duty as both a mouth and an anus. Hapless small animals are trapped in the anemone’s tentacles, which contain stinging cells called nematocysts, and are dragged into the gastrovascular cavity, where they are digested.

The bad news, if you are sea anemone prey at least, is that the stinging isn’t over, because this cavity contains stinging filaments called acontia which also release enzymes to break down food. In this way anemones can digest their food in as little as 15 minutes, and any food the anemone can’t digest, such as shells or bones, is passed back out through the mouth (or anus, depending on how you want to look at it).

If the anemone is threatened it will eject its acontia filaments from its siphonophore as a form of defence, stinging and repelling any would-be predators. Sadly, there is no gas involved, or that really would be a silent but deadly fart.

 

ZEBRA

Scientific name (Genus): Equus

DOES IT FART? YES

 

 

There are three species of zebra alive today: plains (Equus quagga), Grevy’s (Equus grevyi) and mountain (Equus zebra). Zebras are probably best known for their distinctive black-and-white striped coat, and there have been a number of theories proposed by scientists as to why they evolved this distinctive colouration.

One theory is that the stripes could either camouflage them in dappled shade or, more likely, be used to confuse predators when the animals are running. Within a zebra species individuals can recognise other individuals from the configuration of their stripes, so these patterns are likely used to some extent for identification. More recently, these stripes have also been found to deter biting flies.

It is unclear which is the primary driver in stripe evolution, but it seems that zebras’ black-and-white colouration is advantageous in a number of ways. As you may have noted, zebra belong to the same genus as the domestic horse, Equus, and both animals share similar farting habits.

Zebra farts can be heard from long distances across the plains of Africa, and this is particularly common when they are startled and begin to run – the motion propels the gas from their bodies and they often fart loudly with each stride.

 

Find out more fascinating facts about zebras

 

This is an abbreviated extract from Does It Fart? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

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