Meet Skippy, the flatulence-free kangaroo
Sunday 09 June 2002
Farmyard flatulence is no laughing matter in Australia, where methane emissions from sheep and cows contribute significantly to the output of greenhouse gases. Now scientists plan to tackle the problem by studying a creature better adapted to local conditions: the kangaroo.
Kangaroos have a similar diet to cattle, but produce no methane, one of the gases implicated in global warming. Scientists in Queensland believe that bacteria found in their stomachs, which help them to process their food, could be used to reduce emissions by the nation's 23 million cows and 170 million sheep.
Australia's livestock herds discharge more than three million tons of methane a year, accounting for 14 per cent of Australia's output of greenhouse gases. Researchers have isolated 40 types of bacteria in the eastern grey kangaroo and are screening them to determine which are best at digesting native pasture.
The Queensland Minister for Primary Industries, Henry Palaszczuk, said that the most promising bacteria could be grown in a laboratory and introduced into farmyard animals.
The bacteria are thought to reduce hydrogen, which is linked with the production of methane. The theory is that kangaroos' microbes have evolved over millions of years to process Australian grasses, while sheep and cattle – which arrived from Europe only two centuries ago – are less efficient.
"Unlike cattle and sheep, kangaroos don't appear to emit any methane from stomach fermentation," said Athol Cleavey, a scientist with Queensland's Agency for Food and Fibre Sciences.
Methane, produced when animals digest plants, has a global warming potential 21 times greater than carbon dioxide, which is generated by burning fossil fuels. Australia is responsible for nearly 2 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, although it accounts for only 1 per cent of global economic activity.
Mr Cleavey and his researchers also hope to use kangaroo microbes to improve the efficiency of the cattle and wool industries by making native grasses more digestible for livestock.
The kangaroo is the latest weapon in the battle to cut farmyard emissions. Australian scientists are already experimenting with a vaccine that they believe can reduce them by 20 per cent a year. There has also been talk of imposing a tax on farmers who fail to curb their cattle's flatulence.
The problem is even more acute in New Zealand, where the nation's 45 million sheep and eight million cattle are blamed for 44 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.
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