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Influential excrement: How life in Antarctica thrives on penguin poop

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

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

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A new study published 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 the poo produced by seals and penguins partly evaporates 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 infrared gas analyzers that measured their respiration.

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ANGELICA CASANOVA/AFP / HO View of lichen forests in Collins Bay, in Chilean Antarctica on February 10, 2018

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, emphasizing that species’ richness was linked less 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 penguin colonies to be a proxy for biodiversity.

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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.

– ‘Ideal natural laboratory’ –

POOL/AFP/File / Mark RALSTON Seals lie on a frozen section of the Ross Sea at the Scott Base in Antarctica on November 12, 2016

For Bokhorst, Antarctica presented an “ideal natural laboratory” to study the relationship between nutrients and biodiversity because of the simplicity of the overall food web, in contrast to other parts of the world where ecosystems were far more complex.

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“It makes it a lot easier to find driving factors,” said Bokhorst.

But the study also underscored how interconnected the continent’s ecosystem was — and therefore its vulnerability to human activity.

All countries working on the continent are subject to the Antarctic Treaty System, which obliges them to protect its wildlife, but Bokhorst said the study showed “if you start poking at one end it will have an effect at the other end.”

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AFP/File / EITAN ABRAMOVICH The Antarctic Peninsula’s vibrant invertebrate communities experience low predation, but the advent of tourism means there is an increasing chance people could bring seeds or even insects with them

“You need to keep a good eye that you’re not overfishing the oceans so you’re not harming food supplies, otherwise you’re going to have an impact for biodiversity,” he said.

The peninsula’s vibrant invertebrate communities face few predators, but the advent of tourism means there is an increasing chance people could bring seeds or even insects with them.

These, in turn, could benefit from the soil enrichment and establish themselves, threatening the native species.

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“That’s a very good argument for why we should be careful with the Antarctic,” said Bokhorst.

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… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news sites, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

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Russia and China warned Tuesday that a new US missile test had heightened military tensions and risked sparking an arms race, weeks after Washington ripped up a Cold War-era weapons pact with Moscow.

The US and Russia ditched the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty this month after accusing each other of violating the accord.

Washington said the agreement also tied its hands in dealing with other powers such as China.

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