Museum of Nature and Science Paleontologist, SMU Prof Proposes Dinosaur Crap Helped Contribute to Climate Change

Tony Fiorillo curates the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science's paleontology collection, and he's spent every summer since 1998 in Alaska, studying dinosaurs' tracks and bones. It wasn't till last year that he seriously considered all their crap.

Fiorillo's also an adjunct professor at SMU, and his work's been featured in Scientific American and NOVA -- which included clips of his team excavating a horned dinosaur skull that he expects will have a place in the Perot Museum at Victory Park when it opens.

Last month, though, he raised eyebrows among his American Geophysical Union colleagues meeting in San Francisco, when he accompanied an article on dinosaurs buried by mass flooding with a little exercise in climate study -- a poster suggesting that the duck-billed dinosaurs roaming Alaska 70 million years ago could've affected the atmosphere like cows do today. As Fiorillo told a reporter from the Alaska Science Forum, "hadrosaurs may have contributed to a warmer Arctic."

When dinosaurs roamed Alaska, Fiorillo says it was about as warm as Portland, even though it was just as close to the North Pole as it is today. He got to thinking about what causes climate change -- carbon dioxide, sure, but methane too, including a contribution from the notoriously gaseous cows.

"That got me going on a mental gymnastic exercise," he told Unfair Park last week: Assuming manure production remains proportional, if you scale up the output of a half-ton cow to a dinosaur ten times that size, what happens to the atmosphere then?

For all the concern about carbon dioxide today, he says, "it might not be the most significant greenhouse gas. Methane is 25 times more lethal as a greenhouse gas than CO2." He says today, about two percent of the world's methane production comes from cows -- most comes from bogs and lakes.

Duck-billed herbivores like the hadrosaur accounted for 80 percent of the dinosaur population in Alaska, Fiorillo says, about 500,000, by his math. Along with that, he used the population density of African elephants as a rough equivalent for the duck-billed dinos.

"This is all from manure -- it's not from belching and farting, we don't want to go there," he says, which produced a "rather large number for the amount of methane the hadrosaurs could've introduced into the atmosphere annually," he says. "These dinosaurs may have contributed in the same way that people recognize the agricultural industry is making a contribution."

Some climate change skeptics missed the point, Fiorillo says, when they took his study as a direct attack on the hadrosaur. "It's sort of like pushing the play button on a tape," he said. "They have their hot button and they play whatever they have to rage on about without thinking about what I'd said." In fact, he says, "the warmer climates suggest that climates get warm independent of human impact."

From here, he wants to see about refining his model with any data he can find about the methane output of elephants -- even though he admits, if not in so many words, we may never know just how big dinosaurs crapped. "There's such a great deal of debate right now of basic physiology of dinosaurs," he says.

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels