INFLUENTIAL EXCREMENT : How life in Antarctica thrives on penguin poop.

FOR more than half a century, biologists studying Antarctica focused their research on understanding how organisms cope with continent's severe drought and the coldest conditions on the planet.

One thing they really didn't really factor in, however, was the role played by the nitrogen-rich  droppings from colonies of cute penguins and seals - until now.

A new study published last Thursday in the journal Current Biology found the influential excrement supported thriving communities of mosses and lichens, which in turn sustained vast numbers of microscopic animals like springtails and mites for more than 1,000 meters [yards] beyond the colony.

''What we see is that poo produced by seals and penguins partly evaporate as ammonia,'' said  co-author Stef Bokhorst from the Department of Ecological Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

''Then, the ammonia gets picked up by the wind and is blown inland, and this makes its way into the soil and provides the nitrogen that primary producers need in order to survive in this landscape.''

Braving bitter temperatures, the researchers waded through fields of animal waste - not to mention hordes of clamoring elephant seals and gentoo, chinstrap, and Adelie penguins, - to examine the surrounding soils and plants using the infrared gas analyzers that measured their respiration.

Samples brought back and examined in labs revealed that there were millions of tiny invertebrates per square meter because of the lack of  predators in their environment - unlike in European or American grasslands, where the number may, typically be between 50,000 and 100,000.

''The more animals we get, the larger the footprint there is, and we're finding higher diversity in those sites,'' Bokhorst told AFP. emphasising that species' richness was linked less to with how cold or dry the region was and more to the nutrients added by the excrement.

Ultimately, the  research allowed the team to map the hotspots across the Antarctic Peninsula, finding Penguins colonies to be a  proxy for biodiversity.

The maps can be updated in the future using satellite imagery to determine the size and location of breeding colonies, freeing future scientists from having to conduct treacherous fieldwork. [Agencies]


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