The fetid waste of penguins and elephant seals helps spread nutrients across surprisingly large areas of Antarctica. This fertilizer traveled nearly as far as a kilometer (0.6 miles) past the edges of their active outposts, floating on the chilled Antarctic winds.
In areas where the poop wafted, tiny creatures such as mites, springtails (sometimes called snow fleas), and other microscopic critters were two to five times more abundant than in areas less fecally blessed, according to a paper in Current Biology. The discovery could also help researchers keep a close eye on these fragile and remote ecosystems without braving Antarctica’s extreme landscape.
Tiny mites and snow fleas might seem small to us, but they dominate terrestrial life in Antarctica. It’s a tough life, and unlike the visiting birds and mammals, they can’t exactly venture into the nutrient-rich water around the continent for a quick bite. But near their colony, elephant seals and penguins deliver marine takeout to these hardy invertebrates.
“They essentially deliver those nutrients from the ocean where they harvest them, onto land where they poop them out,” says Pacifica Sommers, an ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, who wasn’t involved with this study. In barren places like Antarctica, “a little bit of poop goes a long way,” Sommers says. “And a lot of poop, as this paper found, goes a lot further.”
Stef Bokhorst, an ecologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the lead author of the paper, visited sites on and near the Antarctic Peninsula, taking samples of moss, lichen, and the tiny animals that feed on them — along with a team of other scientists. They found that the more penguins or seals in a group, the larger the animals’ area of influence. The researchers called this area a nitrogen footprint, and found that in some cases it was 240 times larger than the area of a colony.
This also gives ecologists a way to keep track of these populations of the tiny animals who feed on the poop remotely. The poop of hundreds or thousands of penguins and seals is visible from space, allowing researchers to look for these areas in satellite imagery instead of mounting costly field excursions.
That’s particularly important for this region, simply because it’s so remote. Most of Antarctica is rarely or never visited by humans because it’s too hard to get to, Bokhorst said. That means most science is limited to areas around research stations. And there aren’t many of those.
Locating hot spots of biodiversity like these became even more pertinent this week, as the UN issued a report that found that 1 million of the world’s approximately 8 million species were doomed thanks to climate change and other human-caused problems, like habitat loss and pollution. This finding may help people identify and monitor biodiversity hot spots in Antarctica, Bokhorst said in an email to The Verge. He said he considers his work “a first step” in identifying these areas.
Even in the remote Antarctic, species from mites to elephant seals are feeling the pressure. Climate change and fishing could alter or decrease the food supply for these Antarctic animals, potentially forcing them to move their colonies. In turn, that movement could have a “massive impact on terrestrial biodiversity,” Bokhorst said.
Bokhorst and others worry that humans might bring more direct changes to this part of the world as well. Seeds from invasive plants often hitchhike to Antarctica on people’s clothing, and penguin colonies (with their nitrogen-packed surroundings) are some of the most appealing spots to visit. In the future, Bokhorst plans to study how invasive species might take advantage of this uniquely shitty situation, and how conservationists might — hopefully — be able stop them in their tracks.