Monday January 16, 2017

#DoesItFart? Scientists compile database of which animals pass gas

Goldfish swim in a tank at the "Art Aquarium 2016" exhibition in Tokyo, Japan.  Zoology researcher Dani Rabaiotti says some species of fish actually use farting as a form of communication.

Goldfish swim in a tank at the "Art Aquarium 2016" exhibition in Tokyo, Japan. Zoology researcher Dani Rabaiotti says some species of fish actually use farting as a form of communication. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

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Who farted?

It wasn't the parakeet. But it might have been the chimpanzee.

If you're not sure which animal dealt what you smelt, check the database. Biologists (and a few pet owners) from around the world have been collaborating on a Google spreadsheet over the past week that lists which animals pass gas and which don't.

To some biologists, flatulence is serious science.

But on Twitter, at least, a global community of animal researchers aren't above using the word "fart," sharing their knowledge with the hashtag #DoesItFart.

The effort started after an inquiry from a researcher with the Zoological Society of London. Dani Rabaiotti told the story to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Dani Rabaiotti

Dani Rabaiotti is a researcher with the Zoological Society of London. (Pete Steward)

Dani Rabaiotti: A member of my family asked me – and as a zoologist, you do get asked these questions quite a lot – they asked me, "Do snakes fart?" I study mammals, so I didn't know very much about snake farting habits, but because I'm quite active on Twitter and a lot of other biologists and zoologists are, I knew exactly the person to ask. I asked Dr. David Steen on Twitter, do snakes fart? The answer was "yes." Other biologists got involved and suggested that it should be a hashtag. From that, I suggested compiling a database of all the animals, and who found out whether they did or didn't fart.

Helen Mann: Can I ask the age of the relative who asked you the question?

DR: He's a teenager.

HM: I figured. Or younger. I guess that's a question kids ask a lot?

DR: Yeah, it is a question we get quite a lot from kids. I always say that no matter how senior a scientist you become, that's the question that kids want to know about the species you study, "Do they fart?" Which is why the spreadsheet, I thought, would be useful, because obviously you can't be an expert on every animal, so it's good to refer to.

HM: Which other animals pass gas the most?

DR: I think my favourite story of the spreadsheet was the one about chimps, and how if you're researching chimps, you can actually find them in the jungle from the sound of their farting, it's so loud. As well, there's some really interesting scientific papers out there on farting in fish. Some species of fish actually use farting as a form of communication, and you get whole bays filled with fish farts, apparently. And these have actually been published in scientific journals. So I think there are some actual animal fart researchers out there, although I'm sure they do research other things as well.

HM: Which animals don't, uh, toot at all?

DR: Interestingly, if you look on the spreadsheet, there's a reference to the fact that birds don't fart. I never knew that. Despite the fact that they biologically can fart – they have all the anatomy there – they don't fart. That was quite interesting, because someone said their friend's parakeet had farted on them. But if you read the reference to the article about the fact that birds don't fart, it does say that birds will make farting noises with their mouths, but it isn't actually a fart.

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Millipedes release foul-smelling gases from a valve at their rear, but that can technically be called farting? (Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)

HM: One of our listeners who saw a tweet that we were doing this story contacted us to say that whale farts were particularly deadly. Is that true?

DR: I imagine they'd be very big. If you're on a small boat and loads of bubbles came up, that probably wouldn't be great. But I can't say I've ever encountered anyone that's ever encountered a whale fart, and we didn't have really any input from whale researchers in the spreadsheet. I'd be surprised if they didn't fart, but we haven't gotten any positive confirmation as of yet.

HM: Any idea where domestic dog farts fit in? Because I've had some experience with that.

DR: Oh, yeah, domestic dog farts are … Well, I don't know how bad they are, though. Definitely in my family, the dog gets blamed when it's not necessarily the dog, in my opinion. I think they get the short end of the stick.

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Dani Rabaiotti studies African wild dogs. Like domestic dogs, they're known to fart from time to time. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

HM: Are there any surprises on your list? Things that really caught you off guard?

DR: I was definitely surprised by millipedes, actually. Apparently, they release a combination of gases. They do fart. Again, there's a whole scientific paper on the gases that millipedes give off, so that was a surprise.

HM: Is there any debate about what constitutes a fart?

DR: There was debate around the spreadsheet for what constitutes a fart. For example, someone put entries for things like octopus and squid, and they move by jet propulsion, but is it a fart? I don't know. We need to get medical Twitter on board to give us the pure definition of what a fart is if we really want to get that accurate description.

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A chimpanzee holds lettuce at the zoo in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in June, 2014. Zoology researcher Dani Rabaiotti says biologists have told her they find chimps in the wild by listening for their farts. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)


HM: I was wondering, biologically speaking, is there an explanation as to why some animals flatulate and others don't?

DR: In the entry we have for birds, it says that birds don't have the same bacteria in their gut, so they don't have as much gas. But then, I guess it depends on anatomy as well. We have marine invertebrates on there, saying that they don't fart. If they don't have a stomach or a gut, then I guess an animal wouldn't be able to fart.

HM: Who's been contributing to your spreadsheet?

DR: Mostly it's come from scientists who study a particular species. We also made the call-out for people who own animals as well, because obviously if you're a pet owner, you know as well as anyone else what your pets are doing.

HM: And the reaction? How's it going?

DR: It's been interesting. I don't think any of us expected this when we first started chatting about it. Some people might say it's a bit silly. But if it gets kids interested – and we've had teachers saying on Twitter, "We'd really like to use this spreadsheet to help us with teaching." I think that sort of thing is really positive. If it's a fun thing teachers can use in classrooms, then that's definitely really good.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For the full story, listen to our interview with Dani Rabaiotti.