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.
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.
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.
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’ –
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.
“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.”
“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.
“That’s a very good argument for why we should be careful with the Antarctic,” said Bokhorst.
Russia and China blast US missile test
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.
The US Department of Defense announced on Monday it had tested a type of ground-launched missile that was banned under the 1987 INF agreement, which limited the use of nuclear and conventional medium-range weapons.
Leaked audio shows oil lobbyist bragging about success in criminalizing pipeline protests
"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Derrick Morgan of American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers
As a growing number of states move to pass laws that would criminalize pipeline protests and hit demonstrators with years in prison, an audio recording obtained by The Intercept showed a representative of a powerful oil and gas lobbying group bragging about the industry's success in crafting anti-protest legislation behind closed doors.
Trump’s latest attempt to smear Scaramucci dunked in mockery
At least one White House or campaign staffer apparently helped President Donald Trump attack his short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci -- and he was met with mockery.
The president tweeted out a supercut video late Monday of Scaramucci defending Trump before his recent public disavowal, and attacked his former staffer as a "dope" who's seeking fame.
Nobody ever heard of this dope until he met me. He only lasted 11 days! pic.twitter.com/RzX3zjXzga
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 20, 2019