May 23, 2019 | Updated: 11:35 AM EDT

Penguins and Elephant Seals in the Antarctic Region Keep the Nutrients Flowing Through Their Fecal Waste

May 14, 2019 10:29 AM EDT

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Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) in Antarctica, Antarctic Peninsula
(Photo : PaoMic)
Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) in Antarctica, Antarctic Peninsula

Recent research has proven that nutrients spread across the large areas of Antarctica with the help of the fetid waste of penguins and elephant seals. The animal-produced fertilizer would travel for nearly as far as 0.6 miles away from the edges of their territories.

Tiny creatures such as mites, springtails or snow fleas, and other microscopic critters were more abundant in areas where the dung was carried. This discovery could be a key factor for researchers who are keeping a close eye on these fragile and remote ecosystems.

Although tiny mites and snow fleas would seem small, they dominate the terrestrial life in Antarctica. Because these hardy invertebrates cannot venture into the nutrient-rich water, it is vital that penguins and elephant seals thrive near their colony.

Pacifica Sommers, an ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, stated that the said animals would essentially deliver those nutrients in the form of fecal matter. Sommers is not involved with the study but concludes that according to the research, a small amount of dung from the animals would go along way. In turn, a larger volume of dung would go a lot further.

Stef Bokhorst, an ecologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the lead author of the paper, has worked with a team of other scientists in taking samples of moss, lichen, and tiny animals that feed on them. The team has found out that if there are more penguins or seals in a group, they would have a larger area of influence, which the researchers called as a nitrogen footprint. In their study, they have found that a nitrogen footprint of an animal group could be 240 times larger than the area of a colony.

This fact has also given way for the ecologist to keep track of the population of the tiny animals that remotely feed on the dung. The researchers would be able to look for these areas in satellite imagery because the waste of hundreds of penguins and seals is visible from space. This eliminates the need for mounting field excursions that could be costly.

Bokhorst pointed out that it is particularly important for this region to be studied from space simply because of the remote location. They added that most of Antarctica is rarely visited or some areas have never even been trodden upon by humans because of the difficulty and dangers in trekking the said areas.

Previously, most of the scientific researches done were limited to areas around research stations, that is until this study.

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