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Jodie King

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!
(Source: Penguins International photo library)
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.
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

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.
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

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.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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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

3. Schwaller, 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.

4. Lynch, 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.

Penguin Postcards and Port Lockroy

Gentoo Penguins at Port Lockroy

Penguin Postcards and Port Lockroy

by Jodie King

Have you ever gotten to see a penguin in the wild? Have you been on a penguin tourism trip? With the ability to book cheap flights at the touch of a key to beautiful destinations across the world, our access to wildlife is vast and there are very few places left on earth which are untouched by humans. However, not all trips are as glossy as a travel magazine or the serene shots of Instagram, and many horror stories exist surrounding ecotourism. Such as tigers sedated to pose for photographs and tourists allowed to ride endangered elephants.

But have you ever thought about the impact of tourism on wild penguins? There is very little in the media which discusses the impact of our holidays on penguins out in the wild (or on naturalistic reserves). Despite this, there are many articles which list the top destinations to see penguins. For the everyday person trying to book a holiday of a lifetime, it can be confusing to differentiate between activities involving animals that are harmless, those which contribute financially to their conservation, and those that are actually having a negative impact. 

Penguin tourism and Port Lockroy

One of the examples that comes to my mind is a post office at Port Lockroy in Antarctica, which has been televised in recent years and is surrounded by a huge colony of Gentoo Penguins. The first base in the harbour was built in 1944 and has been used to accommodate explorers and scientists. However, the Gentoo Penguins did not arrive until 19851. Guests are allowed to visit the museum and base, and also get to see the penguins in their natural habitat. The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust leaves half the island off limits to visitors, to allow breeding success of the penguins to be monitored to investigate the impact of tourism on the colony. Despite having up to 18,000 visitors per season the results reveal no impact on the breeding success of the penguins.

Gentoo Penguins at Port Lockroy
Gentoo Penguin

Penguin tourism does affect some penguins negatively

Yellow-eyed Penguin
Yellow-Eyed Penguin

Some reserves however, are seeing an impact, and not for the better. Katiki Point in New Zealand has a reserve which is home to Yellow-eyed Penguins. They have found saddening results that only half the number of chicks were raised in 2014/15 in areas with visitors, compared to colonies close by which were not impacted by tourism2. Nests which were within 10m of the public paths were the most affected. They found that chicks were requiring help with fledging the nest and they were having to assist parent penguins with their annual moult thought to be caused by stress from visitors.

Other research has found similar negative consequences for Yellow-eyed Penguins which are exposed to tourism. The presence of people reduces the amount of time Yellow-eyed Penguins spend preening3, which is really important to help keep their feathers in good condition to maintain the penguin’s ability to stay dry and protected from the elements. Additionally, despite the use of a distance rule at reserves, the space between a penguin and person is strongly related to disturbance behaviour,3 indicating that perhaps 5m is still too close for comfort.

People also come with baggage. Other things need to be considered with tourism in addition to the people themselves. The potential for the spread of pathogens from person to penguin, and the presence of artificial light, so penguins can actually still be viewed when it’s dark are just two of the factors that need to be considered. But scientists are already on it! Surprisingly, they have found that the introduction of artificial light does not detrimentally impact Little Penguins returning to shore each night and in fact the penguins seemed to prefer paths that were well lit4. Regarding disease, in 2005 research looking for infection found no pathogens from humans in eight different bird species in Antarctica5. So hopefully this will continue to be the case.

Not all penguin tourism has effects on penguins

Thankfully, most penguin tourism destinations enact strict rules where visitors are concerned, requiring guests to stay a certain distance away from the birds at all times, keeping disturbance to a minimum, and evoking firm no contact regulations. New methods are constantly being implemented to try and improve tourism with penguins. Philip Island Reserve in Australia who are fortunate enough to witness the Little Penguins returning to the beaches each night5 are continuously improving their facilities. After seeing the impact people were having on the penguins, the reserve has built underground viewing areas and large seating areas a short distance away from the penguins, to try and minimise the impact on the birds, whilst still allowing visitors to get close to the action. 

But is this the best solution? Making our interactions with wildlife much more regimented could mean fewer negative consequences, whilst making natural reserves far less natural for the birds themselves. Or are there perhaps other options we are yet to explore?

Do you want to travel to see penguins? If so, has this helped you decide where to go? Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

Check out some of our other blogs, too:

Useful references: 

1 https://www.ukaht.org/visit/visiting-port-lockroy/

2 https://www.penguins.org.nz/visitor-impact-on-penguins.html

3 FRENCH, R., MULLER, C., CHILVERS, B., & BATTLEY, P. (2019). Behavioural consequences of human disturbance on subantarctic Yellow-eyed Penguins Megadyptes antipodes. Bird Conservation International, 29(2), 277-290. doi:10.1017/S0959270918000096

4 Jonas BonnedahlTina BromanJonas WaldenströmHelena PalmgrenTaina Niskanen, and Björn Olsen “In Search of Human-associated Bacterial Pathogens in Antarctic Wildlife: Report from Six Penguin Colonies Regularly Visited by Tourists,” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 34(6), 430-432, (1 August 2005). https://doi.org/10.1579/0044-7447-34.6.430

5 Rodríguez, A., Holmberg, R., Dann, P., & Chiaradia, A. (2018). Penguin colony   attendance under artificial lights for ecotourism. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological and Integrative Physiology, 329(8-9), 457-464.

6 https://www.penguins.org.au/attractions/penguin-parade/

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