Penguins melt their breeding sites with poo (Wired UK)

Penguins use poo to melt snowOxford Science Blog

Researchers working for an Oxford University citizen science project called Penguin Watch have discovered that the Antarctic birds use their poo to melt snow in order to de-ice their breeding sites.

In a video captured by the project over the course of a year, it is possible to see the penguins gather and — as their dark guano builds up — it melts the ice around their rocky breeding sites. The video focuses on the Cuverville Island Gentoo colony and the researchers used snow gauges to measure how fast snow melts just outside the colony. It’s highly possible that part of the reason for the melt is that the dark hue of the poo absorbs heat faster than the white snow around it, which will reflect it.

This discovery is one of many that have been made about the lives of penguins thanks to time-lapse cameras, which have transformed penguin studies and researchers’ abilities to observe and learn about the behaviour of whole colonies of the creatures.


Penguin Watch


“Time-lapse cameras have revolutionised our ability to collect data from a large number of sites simultaneously,” says Oxford penguinologist Tom Hart. “Until now, this has only been possible by putting GPS on penguins. The hope is that, by developing a non-invasive method, we can track penguins across the whole of the Southern Ocean without researchers needing to disturb them.”

Penguin Watch was launched in 2014 and already 1.5million volunteers have helped identify 175,000 images of penguins. The cameras have been dispersed across Antarctica so as to monitor nearly 100 different penguin colonies in total. 

As well as finding out about the effects of penguin poo, the researchers are also discovering what the penguins get up to during the winter and how climate change and human activity impact the ways in which they breed and feed. They also hope to find out why some species in Antarctica are thriving, while others decline.

“The problem is that penguins face different challenges across their range, which could be from climate change, from fisheries or direct human disturbance,” says Hart. “Having many more sites monitored and comparing high- versus low-fished sites, for example, will enable us to work out which of these threats are causing changes to penguin populations and how we might mitigate them.”

In the coming year, Penguin Watch will release 500,000 new images for volunteers to wok their way through and will photograph each and every minute of breeding season. The conditions in Antarctica make it impossible for biologists to stay and observe the birds and nests throughout the whole of the breeding season, so being able to track the penguins constantly throughout the period should result in far more comprehensive datasets to passed to the Antarctic Treaty.

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1 May 2015 | 12:44 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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