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February 2020

The Usefulness of Penguin Poo

penguin poo, what is special about penguin poo, why is penguin poo valuable, scientific investigation of penguin poo, why is there so much penguin poo on the snow

The Usefulness of Penguin Poo

by Jodie King

Let’s talk about poo. All animals produce it but there’s something rather special about penguin poo. Guano is excrement produced specifically from bats and seabirds (poop), including the 18 species of penguin that waddle around the Southern Hemisphere of our planet.

What’s so special about penguin poop?

Many species of penguin including Humboldt Penguins use guano to build their nests. They scrape out layers of soil and poo using the claws on their feet to create burrows. These burrows offer protection for themselves and their chicks from the elements and any potential predators. However, not only is penguin poo a brilliant resource for penguins, it has been highly sought after for use by humans. 

Guano is normally used as a fertiliser as it is very high in nitrogen but has even been used to manufacture gunpowder! It was highly sought after during the early 19th century before the use of synthetic fertilizers, and was primarily extracted from Peru, the home of the Humboldt Penguin.

While using penguin poo is highly resourceful, the collection of guano can be devastating for penguins, as it destroys potential sites for nesting. Parent penguins are forced to create small scrapes on the surface of the substrate which provide little to no protection for their vulnerable chick.

There’s a lot of penguin guano in a penguin colony. Let’s face it, penguins poop a lot!
Want to see just how much penguins actually poop? Check out this video. But we’ll warn you, there’s a lot of penguin pooping going on here! Not for the faint of heart.

What’s being done to fix this problem of penguin guano harvesting?

Despite this, it’s not all doom and gloom. Researchers have been investigating whether areas which have been overharvested for guano can be provided with manmade nest boxes. They have even gone to great lengths to investigate which types of material can mimic a natural African Penguin burrow the best, providing the appropriate levels of warmth and humidity. Additionally, to tackle the problem directly, sustainable guano harvesting has been introduced and walls have been erected around the nesting seabirds to protect them from the guano trade2.  In some areas the penguins even have their own guards.

BUT this isn’t all penguin poo is useful for!

Penguin poo is also valuable for science and penguin conservation

Analysing guano can tell us vital information about penguins and their conservation. 

What you probably didn’t know is that we have been monitoring penguins from space for over 30 years. In 1984, a NASA scientist called Mathew Schwaller suggested that satellites could be used to investigate penguin colonies3. Initially, scientists focused on surveying the Adélie Penguin, a species which only resides in Antarctica. This species has a diet which is mostly made up of krill (which makes their guano bright pink!), but might also make them vulnerable due to human fishing activities. Simplifying a highly complex method, the penguin guano and nesting materials can be distinguished from surrounding substrate using satellites. Using this comparison technique, new penguin colonies can be discovered on remote islands which have little or no access for people and would otherwise not have been found. And we can even look at estimating the number of penguins in the colony to track the abundance pattern4. The wonderful thing is, as technology improves, the image resolution increases and the ability to obtain information is far easier and much more superior.

Many penguins use guano to help build their nests or burrows.

Scientists are actually investigating penguin poo quality!

Investigating poo quantity (from space!) not only tells us about the number of penguins currently in the colony, but can also give a glimpse into the abundance of penguins throughout history. These colony estimates can then be compared to information such as food availability or environmental changes in the same years to establish whether there are any trends in colony declines or increases. On the other hand, it can be used to help provide this information and indicate the condition of the marine ecosystem as the penguins rely on an abundance of fish and small crustaceans to survive. 

A wonderful example of this in action can be seen by researchers Roberts et al. (2017). Using the 84.5g of guano that a Gentoo Penguin produces each day, they investigated the impact of volcanic eruptions on the penguin colony size from an impressive 8,500 years ago!5

Put simply, penguin poop is wonderful stuff. It not only provides penguins with a nest to shelter from the elements and to raise chicks, but offers humans with a highly effective way to fertilise crops. Even more than that, it provides a wealth of information about many penguin species and can even act as an indicator for the diversity of wildlife around them.

Penguin guano actually provides valuable information to researchers.

Did you know how useful penguin poo can be? Please let us know what you learned. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

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Useful references:

 

1 Bonnie R., Lei & Green, Jonathan & Pichegru, Lorien. (2013). Extreme microclimate conditions in artificial nests for Endangered African Penguins. Bird Conservation International. 24. 10.1017/S0959270913000671.

 

2 https://www.iucn.org/content/bird-droppings-biodiversity-paradise-%E2%80%93-guano-islands-and-capes-national-reserve-system-peru

 

3Schwaller, M. R., Olson Jr, C. E., Ma, Z., Zhu, Z., & Dahmer, P. (1989). A remote sensing analysis of Adélie penguin rookeries. Remote sensing of environment, 28, 199-206.

 

4Lynch, H. J., & Schwaller, M. R. (2014). Mapping the abundance and distribution of Adélie penguins using Landsat-7: first steps towards an integrated multi-sensor pipeline for tracking populations at the continental scale. PloS one, 9(11), e113301. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113301

 

5 Roberts, S. J., Monien, P., Foster, L. C., Loftfield, J., Hocking, E. P., Schnetger, B., … & Ochyra, R. (2017). Past penguin colony responses to explosive volcanism on the Antarctic Peninsula. Nature communications8, 14914.

Wildlife Tourism – Is it affecting penguins?

Tourist with Chinstrap Penguin

Wildlife Tourism – Is it affecting penguins?

by Georgia Podmore

Where can I go to see penguins on vacation? This is a common search phrase on internet search engines. There are a variety of countries around the world that have wild penguins and it may seem that no harm is caused from tourists travelling out to experience wild penguins in their natural habitat. With more than half of the species of penguins in decline – due to climate change, overfishing and habitat destruction – it is believed that through tourism the general public can be educated to understand how they may be able to help save the penguins. With thousands of people travelling to specific beaches to witness wild penguins, it should be questioned whether the penguins may be affected through the tourism industry in a variety of ways.

Is Wildlife Tourism Bad?

The term animal tourism is generally associated with negative connotations due to the fact that the majority of people link this to interactions with wild animals. However, this is not necessarily the case when discussing penguin tourism, meaning negative impact is often overlooked. When looking at recommendations to see penguins in the wild, it is common that the visit will consist of a guided tour with strict rules on keeping distance from the penguins and not touching them.

But the penguins are walking toward me!

As CNN quotes, “penguins can be extremely curious, therefore they may approach people” (Spanne, 2019). This is most definitely true, especially of younger juvenile penguins. Villanueva, Walker and Beterellotti (2006) investigated the habituation of Magellanic Penguins to tourists through observing behaviour and measuring corticosterone secretion. The research compared penguins that lived in a tourist-visited area with those in an undisturbed area and found that there was no obvious negative effect on the penguins from tourists.

However, tourists do have the potential to make penguins sick

Research carried out in 2018 found that bacteria from tourists can be passed on to penguins in a “reverse zoonosis” (Rix, 2015). This research focused on faeces of over 666 birds found in Antarctica. Researchers have now become worried that the consequences of tourism on penguins could lead to numbers declining rapidly if a disease is spread (Bollevich, 2018). Cullen and Busch (2009) also discovered that unmanaged tourism can negatively affect the breeding success and survival of Yellow-eyed Penguins, potentially as a result of causing stress. Elsewhere, another study revealed that King Penguins showed signs of stress around humans, whether that being tourists or researchers, due to the disturbance of their “homes,” although it also found that once exposed to humans, the penguins become habituated to them (Rich, 1986).

So is tourism absolutely bad for penguins?

It is difficult to come to a concluding factor on whether penguin tourism has a negative effect on penguin health. When analysing research studies that have been completed, they all state a variety of different results, meaning that there cannot be a clear answer to the question. The only thing that can be stated is that it is the tour operator’s responsibility to ensure that the penguins are affected as little as possible through human presence. 

As discussed earlier, there has been evidence to support the chances of spreading disease across colonies in Antarctica. However, this research has only been limited to this area at current times, meaning that it may not be the case across other species of penguins. Each point around the effects of tourism on penguins has discussed a variety of species, meaning that a reliable conclusion cannot be made on how tourism affects penguins. Further research would need to be conducted on a particular species. Varying factors should also be investigated, such as comparing penguin behaviours dependent on distance kept by tourists. Information like this can then be used to put into place a best practise guide for tour operators, as this will ensure that the penguin’s welfare is affected as little as possible.

With 20%-40% of global tourism being animal attractions, it is understood that the income received via animals can have positive effects on the animals and local communities if used correctly (Action for ethical tourism, 2015). An example of how tourism has helped to save a species would be the tracking of gorillas across Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. There are strict rules put into place centred around tracking gorillas to ensure safety for tourists and animals. These types of tours have helped to increase numbers of mountain gorillas, with over 800 now found. Although research has produced data that proves tourists can pass on diseases to penguins, if strict regulations are put into place by tour operators, this should not cause any problems and can instead be a positive influence. 

The main aim of wildlife tourism should be to educate and conserve the species, with communication being a key factor in achieving success. If researchers piece together their findings and report this to local guides, then penguins should not be affected as much. Many tourists taking part in these tours are doing so because they want to witness an animal in the wild as it may be their last opportunity to do so. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that penguin species do not become extinct, so actions must be critiqued and communicated to ensure that it is not our last chance to witness penguins in their natural habitat.

What are your thoughts on visiting penguins after reading this blog? Please let us know. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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Action for Ethical Tourism (2015). Tourism Concerns. [Online] Guarantee (England). Available at: https://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Animals-in- Tourism-|Web-Final.pdf [Accessed 30 Jun. 2019].

Bollevich, M (2018). Tourists may be making Antarctica’s penguins sick. [Online] Science | AAAS. Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/12/tourists-may-be-making-antarctica-s-penguins-sick [Accessed 1 Jul. 2019].

Busch, J. and Cullen, R. (2009). Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of yellow eyed penguin recovery. Ecological Economics, 68(3), pp 762-776.

Rich, V. (1986) Falkland Islands: Opinions divided on penguin deaths. Nature, 322(6074) pp 4.

Rix, J. (2015). Should tourists be banned from Antarctica? [Online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30709924 [Accessed 1 Jul. 2019].

Spanne, A. (2019) 5 places to see penguins in their natural habitats. [Online] CNN Travel. Available at: https://www.edition.cnn.com/travel/article/penguins-viewing/index.html [Accessed 30 Jun. 2019]

Villanueva, C., Walker, B. and Bertellotti, M. (2011). A matter of history: effects of tourism on physiology, behaviours and breeding parameters in Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) at two colonies in Argentina. Journal of Ornithology, 153 (1), pp 219-228.

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