Believe it or not, scientists are using satellite images of penguin poop, or guano, to study changes in penguin populations and climate change. While the images cannot show individual penguins, they can show the large areas of guano left around nesting areas. It is the color of the poop that is of particular importance to scientists because that tells the story of what the penguins have had available to feed on.

Adele Penguin
Adele Penguin

Image via Wikimedia

The birds live in the area of Antarctica where things are frozen pretty much year round. This allows the excrement to pile up, layer upon layer. Penguin guano ranges in color from white and blue to pink and red. The white and blue colors indicate diets that are rich in fish while the pink and red colors indicate the birds have been relying of krill for their food.

Adele Penguin
Adele Penguin

Image via Wikimedia

Penguins poop so much that the ground around their nesting areas become stained with the color. Changes in the color of these areas can give scientists a clue as to what is happening in the nearby ocean waters where the birds feed. This demonstrates the penguin response to changes in the marine ecosystem due to climate change.

In case you have never seen penguin poop you can check it out here:

Among the findings that have started to come from this shows that penguin chicks that must rely more heavily on krill as a food source don't grow as large as those chicks that have more fish in their diet. This is the first time researchers have been able to track diet from space, and researchers say that this is a breakthrough way for them to keep an eye on how seabird populations are doing around the planet.

Adele Penguins Coming Ashore
Adele Penguins Coming Ashore

Image via Wikimedia

Of course there is nothing that can really replace boots on the ground and scientists went in to collected samples that they then matched to the antarctic images received from the Landsat-7 satellite.

“There’s a clear regional difference, krill on the west, fish on the east,” says Casey Youngflesh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Connecticut.

What millions of Adele penguins in the study are eating creates a direct correlation to how the base of the food chain is holding up. Krill, which are tiny crustaceans, are showing a major decline on the western side of the Antarctic peninsula. Rapidly changing climate and a huge increase in commercial fishing of krill are taking their toll.

Antarctic Krill
Antarctic Krill -- Magnified

Image via Wikimedia

Krill are harvested on a large scale for use in pet foods and in nutritional supplements for humans. That means that the krill available for the penguins is being drastically reduced. Naturally penguins are not the only marine animals that rely on krill as a food source.

It would take a lot of time and money for researchers to visit all of these nesting sites. Using the satellite images allow these scientists to work on a much larger scale than they otherwise would be able to do.

Satellite Images of Nesting Grounds
Satellite Images of Nesting Grounds

Image via Wired (Thomas Sayre-McCord WHOI/MIT)

Of course these images don't let the researchers look backward at this point so one researcher made the trek to take all that crap directly. Michael Polito, assistant professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University, went and excavated through layers of guano, feathers, eggshells, and bones on the Danger Islands where a large penguin colony lives that has remained largely free of human presence.

Excavating Excrement: Not as Glamourous as it Sounds
Excavating Excrement: Not as Glamourous as it Sounds

Image via Wired (Michael Polito)

He eventually discovered that the Adele penguins had been living in the area for almost 3,000 years. Since this species of penguin needs access to ice-free land, open water, and lots of food for their babies, the presence of a penguin colony can demonstrate the climatic health of an area.

Combining traditional excavation techniques with satellite imaging will allow researchers to identify potential trouble spots for the Adele and other penguins. Heather Lynch, associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University had her laboratory put together a map of Antarctica showing the colonies of four species of penguin living there. Lynch's group is in the process of looking back at satellite images from past years, into the 1980s, to see if they can establish a penguin poop timeline. This will show the rise and fall in populations in the colonies.

A computer algorithm was created to help hunt through the images of these areas to identify the location of more colonies. Researchers went to Antarctica and found that the computer had been right about the presence of colonies they had not known of before. The size of these spots also allow them to estimate the size of each colony.

What the scientists were not able to answer (yet) is why some colonies crashed while others flourished. They had hypothesized that food supplies would be at the root of crashing populations. Time to review the data and create a new hypothesis.

Sources: Wired, Smithsonian, XinhuaNet

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