Penguin and Elephant Seal Poop are Helping Lives Thrive in Antarctica

While methane from cattle is a big contributor to global warming, way down south in Antarctica, what comes out the rear ends of penguins and elephant seals is helping life thrive.

These animals’ poop contains nitrogen, which helps enrich the soil and produce vegetation in this cold, dry environment that’s not conducive to plant life. A new study found biologically diverse hotspots not only in the colonies of penguins and elephant seals but reaching more than 1,000 meters—over half a mile—beyond them.

For the study, published May 9 in the journal Current Biology, researchers tested the soil and plants around the colonies of gentoo, chinstrap and Adélie penguins as well as elephant seals in three areas of the Antarctic peninsula. They discovered that wherever there was more poop from these animals, there was more biological diversity.

“If you put more poo in the system, the Antarctic wildlife like that,” Stef Bokhorst, a polar ecologist and lead author of the study, told the New York Times.

How this happens is more amazing than gross. Unlike other wildlife in the Antarctic, penguins and elephant seals can transfer nitrogen from the sea to the shore. It comes out in their poop, which evaporates as ammonia that can travel over half a mile inland and be absorbed into the land. The ammonia can enrich an area up to 240 times the size of the colony.

It’s a win-win situation: A variety of plants and lichens feed on the nitrogen, while a variety of invertebrates like mites and worms eat the vegetation.

Millions of these invertebrates were found near penguin and elephant seal colonies. Interestingly, Bokhorst noted that while millions were found per square meter in this challenging environment, only about 50,000 to 100,000 of these invertebrates are found per square meter in the grasslands of the United States and Europe.

The researchers were surprised to find that the extent of a colony’s so-called nitrogen footprint had little to do with how cold or dry the environment is but instead relied more on the number of animals living there. Because Antarctica has a fairly simple food web, Bokhorst told the New York Times it’s the “ideal experimental lab” for seeing how nutrients impact the biodiversity of an ecosystem.

Bokhorst said there’s good and bad news regarding their discovery. Starting with the bad news, it’s possible that those biologically diverse hot spots could be invaded by harmful plant species, mostly grasses, brought in on the boots and clothing of tourists hoping to get a closer look at the penguins and elephant seals. Those hardier invasive plant species could provide homes for predatory insects, like beetles and spiders. The researchers are next planning to look into what can be done to prevent the introduction of invasive species in these areas.

The good news is that, although the study notes that “biodiversity is threatened by climate change and other human activities,” Bokhorst said he and his team have yet to find any negative evidence of climate change in the areas of the Antarctica peninsula they’ve been researching over the past 15 years. So far, he told the New York Times, vegetation there seems to be coping “with a couple of degrees of warming.”

Related at Care2

Photo credit: Christopher Michel/Flickr

103 comments

Arlene C
Arlene C15 hours ago

Merci Laura

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Nora H
Nora Hetrick17 hours ago

wow!!!!

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joan silaco
joan silaco20 hours ago

I knew shit was good for something!

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Linda Wallace
Linda Wallace2 days ago

Thank you for the information.

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heather g
heather g2 days ago

I'm pleased to hear nitrogen works to their advantage when its a serious pollutant in other areas

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Danie3 days ago

Thank you so very much.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Danie3 days ago

Thank you so very much.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Danie3 days ago

Thank you so very much.

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Diane E
Diane E3 days ago

Really amazing. Nature never fails to provide wonderful solutions to problems.

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