MAY 9, 2019
For more than half a century, biologists studying Antarctica focused their research on understanding how organisms cope with the continent's severe drought and the coldest conditions on the planet.
One thing they didn't really factor in, however, was the role played by the nitrogen-rich droppings from colonies of cute penguins and seals—until now.
A new study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology found the influential excrement supported thriving communities of mosses and lichens, which in turn sustained vast numbers of microscopic animals like springtails and mites for more than 1,000 meters (yards) beyond the colony.
"What we see is that the poo produced by seals and penguins partly evaporates as ammonia," said co-author Stef Bokhorst from the Department of Ecological Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
"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."
Braving bitter temperatures, the researchers waded through fields of animal waste—not to mention hordes of clamoring elephant seals and gentoo, chinstrap, and Adelie penguins—to examine the surrounding soils and plants using infrared gas analyzers that measured their respiration.