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Lessons From Poop

Antarctica’s coasts are covered in bright-pink penguin poop. Scientists are learning a lot about the frozen continent’s ecosystem by studying it.

COURTESY OF RON NAVEEN

Casey Youngflesh counts gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. These counts help verify those made with satellites.

Jim McMahon/Mapman

Casey Youngflesh is standing on the Antarctic Peninsula. This long landmass juts out of Earth’s southernmost continent. The temperature outside hovers around freezing, so he’s bundled up in a snowsuit. Not only will it keep him warm, but it also might soften the blow from a penguin attack. Although Adélie penguins are among the smallest of Antarctica’s penguins, they’re feisty. “They can be quite terrifying,” he says. “Their powerful flippers can feel like a boat oar slapping your calf.”

As Youngflesh and his colleagues approach the colony, they hear the squawking of hundreds of thousands of Adélie penguins before they see them. The overwhelming fishy smell of the birds’ poop covering the frozen ground can’t be ignored either. In fact, that is exactly what they’re there to collect. Youngflesh is an ecologist who studies penguins by examining their poop. It turns out the poop reveals a lot about the birds and their surrounding ecosystem.

In addition to collecting poop samples, Youngflesh and his colleagues use high-tech tools to monitor the birds. By comparing images taken by satellites in space and drones that zoom over the land, they are learning more about how climate change is affecting the ecosystems on the frozen continent.

Casey Youngflesh is standing on the Antarctic Peninsula. This long piece of land sticks out of the most southern continent on Earth. It’s freezing outside, so he’s bundled up in a snowsuit. But the suit isn’t only for keeping him warm. It also might soften the blow from a penguin attack. Adélie penguins are small, but they’re feisty. “They can be quite terrifying,” Youngflesh says. “Their powerful flippers can feel like a boat oar slapping your calf.”

Youngflesh and his colleagues approach the colony where Adélie penguins live. There are hundreds of thousands of them there. The scientists hear the birds squawking before they see them. The fishy smell of the birds’ poop also fills the air. In fact, that’s exactly what Youngflesh is there to collect. He’s an ecologist who studies penguins by examining their poop. It can teach him a lot about the birds and their environment.

Youngflesh and his colleagues do more than collect poop samples. They also use high-tech tools to monitor the birds. They study images of Antarctica taken by flying drones and satellites in space. By comparing the images, they’re learning more about how climate change is affecting life on the frozen continent. 

SMELLY SCIENCE

After they collect the penguins’ droppings, Youngflesh and his team take the samples back to the lab on their ship. This is where things get messy. Youngflesh spreads the samples into small circular patties about the size of a hamburger. “When you’re cooped up in a homemade lab inside a ship in the Southern Ocean, and you have to spread droppings into poop patties—it’s pretty smelly,” he says. “You can’t get that smell out of your clothes.”

The poop’s color is determined by what the penguins eat. Youngflesh primarily studies Adélie penguins. Some Adelie penguins eat a diet consisting mainly of a fish called Antarctic silverfish. Others eat more krill, a tiny pink shellfish. By using a tool called a spectrometer, Youngflesh can measure the exact color of the poop. It can vary from very white to a deep, pinky brown. “More pink means more krill,” he says, “and whiter poop means a more fish-centric diet.”

After they collect the penguins’ droppings, the team takes the samples back to their ship. They have a small science lab there. This is where things get messy. Youngflesh spreads the samples into small circular patties about the size of a hamburger. “It’s pretty smelly,” he says. “You can’t get that smell out of your clothes.”

Youngflesh primarily studies Adélie penguins. Their poop’s color is determined by what they eat. Some Adélie penguins mostly eat a fish called Antarctic silverfish. Others mainly eat krill, a tiny pink shellfish. Youngflesh analyzes the poop using a tool called a spectrometer. It measures the exact color of the poop. The color can be anywhere from white to pinkish brown. “More pink means more krill,” says Youngflesh. Whiter poop means more fish. 

Courtesy of Casey Youngflesh

All this pink is poop! It gathers on the ground as adult Adélie penguins raise their fuzzy gray chicks on the Antarctic Peninsula.

A VIEW FROM SPACE

Antarctica and its surrounding islands are particularly good for using satellites to take pictures of the land. Because there are no trees, it’s possible to get a direct view from a satellite orbiting Earth.

When looking at the satellite pictures, Youngflesh isn’t counting the birds one by one. Instead he’s looking at their poop. “They poop so much. They stain the land with their guano,” says Youngflesh. Guano is another word for poop from seabirds and bats. Some of these stains are larger than 100 football fields. In 2018, scientists discovered a new colony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins by using satellite and drone images of poop!

Closer to the ground, but still offering a bird’s-eye view, Youngflesh uses drones to take pictures of the penguin colonies. These photos from different perspectives are added into an algorithm, which crunches the numbers to estimate the total penguin population.

There are no trees on Antarctica and its surrounding islands. That makes it a good place to study using satellites. The spacecraft orbiting Earth can get a direct view of the ground—and the penguins.

Analyzing the satellite pictures helps Youngflesh figure out how many penguins there are. But he isn’t counting the birds one by one. Instead he’s looking at their poop. “They poop so much. They stain the land,” says Youngflesh. Some of these stains are larger than 100 football fields. In 2018, scientists discovered a new colony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins. They knew the birds were there because their poop was visible in satellite and drone images!

Youngflesh also uses drones to take pictures of the penguin colonies. He captures photos from different perspectives. Then computers analyze them to estimate the total penguin population. 

Courtesy of Casey Youngflesh

Youngflesh spreads the penguin poop that he’s collected into patties.

A COMPLEX STORY

Using this data, researchers have found that some Adélie penguin colonies are increasing, while others are decreasing. “It’s a complex story about environmental changes,” says Youngflesh.

Antarctica is surrounded by large swaths of sea ice that shift with the seasons. The sea ice grows in winter and shrinks in the summer. Over the past 50 years, the patterns in sea ice have been changing. Average winter temperatures have risen more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit on the Antarctic Peninsula. These changes have affected how and where the penguins live.

Adélie penguins spend the winter on the sea ice hunting but make their nests on the coasts of Antarctica and its surrounding islands. Warming temperatures are affecting the sea ice, which they rely on year-round.

The data has revealed a lot. Scientists have found that some Adélie penguin colonies are increasing, while others are decreasing. “It’s a complex story about environmental changes,” says Youngflesh.

Antarctica is surrounded by large blocks of sea ice. They shift with the seasons. Over the past 50 years, the patterns in sea ice have been changing. Average winter temperatures have risen more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit on the Antarctic Peninsula. These changes have affected the penguins too.

Adélie penguins make their nests on the coasts of Antarctica and its surrounding islands. They spend the winter hunting on the sea ice. But warming temperatures are melting the sea ice, making it harder for some penguins to survive.

Courtesy of Casey Youngflesh

Scientists use drones to take pictures of penguin colonies.

These changes in sea ice and other factors, like precipitation, all have an effect on the penguins. The ones that eat more krill have had population declines, but the ones that eat more fish have seen increased numbers.

“We know fish are better for penguin chicks,” he says. But even for the colonies whose numbers are rising, one season with a lot more snow or rain can be devastating for the chicks covered in down feathers, which soak up water. “The young penguins can just freeze,” he says.

For Youngflesh, the challenges of studying penguins are worth it. “Seabirds are often called indicators,” he says. “That means they can summarize some of the things that are going on in the marine environments.”

By studying the penguins of the Antarctic Peninsula—and their poop—Youngflesh hopes to learn how climate change will affect other coastal areas. The lessons learned may help other species survive.

Other things about the environment, like rain and snow, are changing too. They all have an effect on the penguins. The colonies of penguins that eat more krill are shrinking in number. But the ones that eat more fish have grown. 

“We know fish are better for penguin chicks,” says Youngflesh. That may be why fish-eating colonies are doing better than their relatives. But these penguins still face risks too. Adélie chicks are covered in down feathers, which soak up water. One season with a lot more snow or rain can be devastating for them. “The young penguins can just freeze,” says Youngflesh.

The challenges of studying penguins are worth it for Youngflesh. And it’s not just because they’re so cute. “Seabirds are often called indicators,” he says. That means that their health tells scientists about the health of the whole environment.

Youngflesh will keep studying the penguins of the Antarctic Peninsula. He hopes to understand how climate change will affect other coastal areas too. The lessons he learns may help other species survive.

Use this information to learn more about the penguin populations in the Danger Islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use this information to learn more about the penguin populations in the Danger Islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Complete the chart to the right to find the area of each island covered by Adélie penguin guano.

Complete the chart to the right to find the area of each island covered by Adélie penguin guano.

Which island has the largest area covered in penguin guano? The smallest?

Which island has the largest area covered in penguin guano? The smallest?

Researchers estimate that there are 0.53 penguin nests per square meter of poop. Each nest represents at least 2 penguins. What is the combined minimum penguin population on the islands in the chart?

Researchers estimate that there are 0.53 penguin nests per square meter of poop. Each nest represents at least 2 penguins. What is the combined minimum penguin population on the islands in the chart?

Youngflesh and his colleagues estimate that the Adélie penguins in the Danger Islands represent about 55% of the total Adélie penguin population in the Antarctic Peninsula. They calculated a total of 1,503,054 penguins on the islands. What is the total estimated Adélie penguin population in Antarctica?

Youngflesh and his colleagues estimate that the Adélie penguins in the Danger Islands represent about 55% of the total Adélie penguin population in the Antarctic Peninsula. They calculated a total of 1,503,054 penguins on the islands. What is the total estimated Adélie penguin population in Antarctica?

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