To study ecosystems at the bottom of the world, scientists must learn to deal with extreme weather and geography. One thing a group of researchers visiting the island of South Georgia wasn't prepared for was the intoxicating effects of penguin poop, Gizmodo reports.
South Georgia sits in the South Atlantic north of Antarctica and east of South America, and in recent years, it's become a great place to study king penguins and their impact on the environment. As glaciers on the island have retreated due to climate change, an influx of penguins has filled the newly open land. The island supports a king penguin population of about 300,000 breeding adults today. The uptick in penguins has resulted in more penguin poop, with the poop releasing more of the same greenhouse gases into the air that are causing glaciers to the melt in the first place.
The environment isn't the only thing susceptible to the gases from penguin guano. Scientists from Denmark and China were in South Georgia to study this cycle when they started to feel sick and loopy. They had spent the day breathing nitrous oxide, which is more commonly known as laughing gas.
“After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo. One begins to feel ill and get a headache,” Bo Elberling, a researcher from the Center for Permafrost at the University of Copenhagen, told the AFP. He and his colleagues published a study on the relationship between glacial retreat, penguin activity, and greenhouses gases in the journal Science of The Total Environment.
King penguins eat a lot of fish and krill, both of which are high in nitrogen. But penguin feces on its own doesn't contain the same stuff that dentists give their patients. When the guano enters the ground, microbes in the soil convert it to nitrous oxide. In addition to making it hard for visitors to breath, the gas is bad for the air. The polluting effect of nitrous oxide is 300 times higher than that of carbon dioxide. According to the study, there isn't enough nitrous oxide produced on South Georgia to have a global impact, but as the penguin population grows, so will the amount of waste they leave behind.