Aussie sheep don gas masks to curb emissions

Just in time for Halloween, Australian sheep are soon to be sporting clever covers. But instead of scary ghost and goblin disguises, the pick of the herd will be wearing gas masks to help monitor their methane emissions.

Researchers at the Sheep Cooperative Research Centre are rounding up sheep so that staff can track emissions through well-placed gas masks on their faces. Similar to cows, sheep give off a sizable sum of methane emissions when burping or farting. According to one wool industry site, there about 114 million sheep in Australia. Each one emits more than 300 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year. That’s a lot of bodily functions.

Scientists hope that the project will shed light on which breeds of sheep tend to emit the least amount of methane. In addition to tracking the biggest emitters, the experiment will help scientists learn how to alter sheep’s eating habits to further reduce emissions. Though hardly appropriate for dinner table conversations, making animals less gassy is no new feat. In 2003, researchers at the University of Nebraska created a food additive dubbed “Bovine Beano” that reduces cow-generated methane by making digestive microbes produce nutrients rather than gas. 

“Operation Gas Mask” won’t require any pills, however. Instead, researchers will place the gas masks over the sheep’s mouths while they breathe to capture the emissions. Dressing up animals is often so embarrassing it borders on cruel, but hold off on that call to PETA because the researchers are hardly wolves in sheep’s clothing. After all, the whole process only takes about a minute, and donning gas masks is a lot less invasive than say, cloning a sheep. All in all, the group most likely to be annoyed by the mass masking is the unlucky interns stuck with the tedious job. But as for the sheep, it doesn’t seem to bother them, says researchers.

“Operation Gas Mask” will swing into action soon, so count some sheep to pass the time and stay tuned.

By: Jessica A. Knoblauch