Science

Penguin Poop Helps Biodiversity Bloom in Antarctica


Antarctica is known for its great expanses of white. And not just snow. “If it’s fresh it might be white or pinkish. And eventually it all turns brown, muddy brown.” 

Stef Bokhorst is an ecologist at Vrije University in Amsterdam. And the initially white stuff he’s talking about is penguin poop. 

“The first thing you notice of it is the smell. You’re squishing through puddles of what you think is mud, but it’s actually just poo. And that produces that really strong ammonia smell you can smell from miles away.”

But it’s not just the smell that travels on the wind. Ammonia contains nitrogen—a valuable fertilizer. So the winds carry nourishment to nearby mosses and lichens. That in turn supports teeming communities of the largest fully terrestrial animals in Antarctica: invertebrates like springtails and mites.

Bokhorst and his colleagues took air and plant samples around the poop piles, and found this airborne ammonia fertilizer enriches life as far as a mile away. The full details are in the journal Current Biology. [Stef Bokhorst, Peter Convey, Rien Aerts, Nitrogen Inputs by Marine Vertebrates Drive Abundance and Richness in Antarctic Terrestrial Ecosystems]

And the work makes it easier for scientists like Bokhorst to remotely estimate Antarctica’s biodiversity. “We don’t have to go to all of these field sites, we can sit at home, take all these pictures with satellites, and get an idea where the highest biodiversity should be, along the peninsula.”

Of course, doctors have long taken a stool sample to get medical information about a patient. And now ecologists will be able to use imagery to track feces and predict its beneficial effects at the bottom of the world. In short: don’t poo-poo the poo. 

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]


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