Call it landscaping the penguin way: time-lapse footage from a colony of Antarctic Gentoo penguins appears to show the birds using their feces to melt snow in their breeding grounds. The images — captured by the University of Oxford's Penguin Watch initiative — show the snow piling up before the penguins arrive, ready to breed. They quickly blanket the area with what looks like mud (here's a clue: it's not mud) and lo, the snow begins to melt.
whatever's going on, the penguins aren't doing it on purpose
Scientists studying the footage say it's possible that the darker color of the poo is helping to melt the snow by absorbing extra heat — a process known as the albedo effect. "This is something we're testing at the moment," says Dr. Tom Hart, a penguinologist from the University of Oxford. "The snow might also be melting because of mechanical erosion — because the penguins are walking around." He stresses that whatever is melting the snow, the penguins certainly aren't aware that their poop might be doing it. They've got to poop somewhere after all.
Hart adds that this observation is more than just a curiosity — it could also help preserve endangered penguins. The birds in the footage are Gentoos, a species currently in competition with Adélie and Chinstrap penguins. But while the latter two species aren't doing so well, Gentoos are expanding their territory, despite being less tolerant of the Antarctic snow and ice. "Gentoos have to wait for rock to be exposed before they can breed," says Hart. "So if they're managing to gain additional ground by [melting the snow] early it might allow them to outcompete the Adélies and Chinstraps."
The footage was collected as part of Penguin Watch — a citizen science project run by the University of Oxford that invites the public to analyze imagery beamed from the Antarctic. Hart says there's simply too much footage for scientists to check themselves, but thanks to the public's help, he and his colleagues are discovering new details about penguins' lives in the Antarctic. Including what they do with their poo.
A photo from the colony showing the time-lapse camera and snow markers. (Penguin Watch)