Penguins May Use Poop to Melt Snow From Breeding Sites Before They Get it On

The observation comes from analyzing thousands of images captured by remote cameras trained on penguin colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula

Gentoo penguins
A male Gentoo penguin brings stones to a female with chicks Kevin Schafer/Minden Pictures/Corbis

The waddling, smartly-colored and lovable birds of the southernmost continent have managed to survive in a harsh landscape (though perhaps at the expense of their taste buds) thanks to specific adaptations. For example, Emperor penguins take turns getting warm in the center of a massive huddle to last through the long winter. Now researchers and citizen scientists may have found another innovative survival strategy. Penguins need the snow to clear their rocky breeding sites before the action starts, and apparently they might be using their poo to melt the snow faster, reports Louis Doré for The Independent.

In a time-lapse video of the Cuverville Island Gentoo penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, you can see that the pattern of penguins congregating and leaving their droppings is followed by snowmelt.

The idea of melting snow with poop may induce giggles, but the observation came out of an effort to better understand what threats penguins face. Tom Hart at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology helps organize the project, called Penguin Watch. The research teams are using remote cameras to spy on five penguin species — Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adélie, King and Rockhopper — in Antarctica

Penguin numbers are declining, a problem researchers have linked to climate change. While the Emperor penguins may have some ways to cope with declining sea ice, ultimately penguins are in trouble. But studying these birds can be hard. "Most penguin colonies are so remote and the environment is so hostile the most practical way to study them is to leave something recording for us," says Hart in a press statement written last fall. "Between the Australian Antarctic Division and ourselves, we have a network of over 50 automated cameras. These cameras are now giving us hundreds of thousands of images of penguins throughout the year."

Analyzing all those photos requires lots of eyes, so Penguin Watch enlists the help everyday people via the online portal Zooniverse, a collection of web-based citizen science efforts. There, volunteers can click through the many photos and help teach a computer how to count and identify the penguin species as well as whether an individual is an adult, a chick or an egg. 

The site explains that scientists are trying to figure out the timing of cycles in the colonies — when the birds arrive, when they breed, egg incubation times and hatch day.  The information should help researchers figure out just how affected these penguin populations are by human activities such as climate change and fishing.

The cameras have already recorded one full season (as in the video above) and the team installed new cameras for this year.

“We hope these new cameras will reveal how often penguins feed their chicks and how long they have to go to sea to feed in different regions," Hart told The Independent. “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.”

Already volunteers have helped analyze 175,000 images from last year, Doré reports at The Independent. The next year should bring hundreds of thousands more. So if you care to click through penguin pics and maybe help some science, this is the website for you.