I love to teach. Part of the reason for this passion is that I get to constantly push myself to learn. The “living dangerous” side of having chosen teaching as my career is that you never now what kind of question you are going to get about the information you are so confidently disseminating. Take, for example, the query I was presented with during a recent outing with 25 fifth graders.
The group had visited the University of Colorado at Boulder for a tour of campus and a look at the scientific research taking place. Every 20 minutes, the attendant graduate student scientists (me and my cohorts) escorted a subgroup to different locations on campus. We started with a wonderful lecture by Dr. Jeff Mitton who showed pictures from a recent trip to the Galapagos. Next was a visit to two labs in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. After that we learned about the plants in the herbarium/greenhouse, then we moved to the museum insect collection. It was here that the QUESTION grew from a small egg, matured within its cocoon, and emerged as a full adult.
From behind a stack of drawers containing pinned grasshoppers, bees and butterflies, a small, yet surprisingly confident voice asked, “Do insects fart?” I could only smile. “Umm…” I had to collect my thoughts in the midst of suppressed giggles. “I suspect they do, but, well…I am not sure.” My science brain went into overdrive, while my teacher brain went into damage control. I defaulted, as I have learned is the best course, to honestly. “Well, I am not sure. Can I get back to you on that?” “Sure” was the reply. And later that day, thanks to my smart phone, I did. For those of you who were not present, here’s the short answer…
Methanogens, produce the methane gas at the heart of most farts. These anaerobic bacteria live in the guts of host organisms and help digest consumed food. In the case of insects, this mutualistic interaction helps break down consumed plant material, often in the form of wood and leaf litter. It appears that only a few insect orders, those containing termites and cockroaches included, actually produce methane.
So while this inquiry may on the surface appear to be an opportunity to use the newly acquired word “fart”, the question is actually pretty interesting. And with the recent NPR Science Blog headline regarding the potential that dinosaur “emissions” contributed to global climate change, I may have just received a question from a future MacArthur Award winner.