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In search of Antarctic biodiversity? Look no further than penguin poop

Feces from fish-hunting penguins and seals ferry nitrogen from sea to land, supporting food chains across the peninsula.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next

Through their poop, penguins can cycle nitrogen through the Antarctic ecosystem, supporting food chains and creating hotspots of biodiversity. Image Credit: Nick Dale, iStock

At first glance, the Antarctic might seem cold, desolate, and pretty inhospitable to life. But in small pockets throughout the frozen landscape, critters aplenty have found a way to thrive—all thanks to the nutrient-rich droppings of penguins and seals, a new study finds.

According to the research, published today in the journal Current Biology, the feces of these charismatic creatures infuse their surroundings with nutrients that can nourish wildlife even thousands of feet beyond the borders of the colonies that produce them.

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To collect this crucial intel, a team of scientists led by Stef Bokhorst, an ecologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, trekked through the Antarctic in search of defecating droves of elephant seals, as well as gentoo, chinstrap, and Adélie penguins. In three separate locations along the Antarctic peninsula, the researchers tabulated turds and examined the soils and plants surrounding the colonies. The bigger the colony, the more poop there was, and the more biodiversity the area supported.

After capturing and consuming prey from Antarctic waters, penguins and seals will swim inland to drop a deuce ashore. As they’re released into the environment, these excretions, imbue nearby soil with readily available nitrogen-based compounds carried over from the animals’ recent meals. Because the nitrogen in feces can also evaporate into the air, where it’s blown into wind, these halos of excrement can enrich areas up to 240 times the size of the colonies producing them, the researchers say.

The nutrients in these far-flung feces are then gobbled up by locals. In the study, tiny invertebrates like mites, springtails, and roundworms were up to eight times more abundant in spots teeming with turds than in regions that weren’t. “You can find millions of [these invertebrates] per square meter here,” Bokhorst said in the statement. “In grasslands in the US or Europe, there are only about 50,000 to 100,000 per square meter.”

Because poop reliably tracks with colonies on the move, satellite images that map the location and size of breeding colonies can now be used to pinpoint biodiversity hotspots in the Antarctic, Bokhorst said in a statement. This could alleviate the burden of fieldwork, which is often harsh and dangerous in the Antarctic, for researchers interested in studying local populations.

The study points to the idea that, through the simple act of expelling bodily waste, penguins and seals are conduits that ferry nitrogen from water to land—which means that, as penguin populations continue to be imperiled by the changing climate, far more species could be at risk.

If the fates of these poop producers take a turn for the worse, things might just get a lot less crappy—and for once, that’s not good news.

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