Scientists Find an Antarctic Biodiversity Hotspot in Seal and Penguin Poop

Adelie penguins in Antarctica. (Photo by Jason Auch via Wikipedia Commons)

(CN) – Penguin and seal poop may be the key to Antarctica’s biodiversity hot spots, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Nutrient-rich soils may seem irrelevant in a place as cold and desolate as Antarctica. But scientists say climate change and human activity could make the area more hospitable to invasive plant and animal species that ultimately compete and threaten the native flora and fauna.

“Just as the penguin and seal colonies enrich the soil for native plants, it’s also possible that they are making it ideal for invasive species as well, which could be hardier and provide shelter for predatory insects like spiders and beetles,” said study author Stef Bokhorst, a researcher in the Department of Ecological Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Right now, the system is too unproductive to support any mammals like rats and mice.”

Scientists point out vibrant invertebrate communities currently experience very low predation by insects and rodents that now plague native species in tropical locales, inadvertently introduced by travelers. Should the Antarctic climate become more inviting as sea ice melts, invasive plant species could blow in from South Africa and South America or be carried by seabirds and humans and gain a foothold in the nitrogen-rich poop dropped by colonies of penguins and seals.

Researchers maneuvered through fields of animal waste and groups of clamoring elephant seals, gentoo, chinstrap, and Adélie penguins to examine the soils and plants surrounding these colonies to determine the nitrogen footprint that forms a circle of nutrient enrichment.

“What we see is that the poo produced by seals and penguins partly evaporates as ammonia,” Bokhorst said. “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.”

This process allows ammonia to enrich an area up to 240 times the size of the colony. The study authors also said they were surprised to find that cold and dry conditions had little impact.

In areas of enrichment, authors found a thriving community of mosses and lichens. This type of habitat supports a large number of small invertebrates, such as springtails and mites.

“You can find millions of them per square meter here, but in grasslands in the U.S. or Europe, there are only about 50,000 to 100,000 per square meter,” Bokhorst said, adding: “It took months and months of sitting in the lab counting and IDing them under a microscope.”

Bokhorst and his colleagues used the gathered data to map biodiversity hotspots across the peninsula. With the initial mapping scientists will be able to use satellite images to determine the location and size of breeding colonies to keep maps updated in the future, rather than brave the tough research conditions in a region as massive, isolated and cold as Antarctica.

The authors say more research is necessary to address potential impacts of invasive species in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The ultimate goal will be to determine whether poop from penguin and seal colonies does increase the success of invading species and if it does how to prevent that introduction from happening.

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