Life is tough for penguins in Antarctica. The tuxedoed waddlers are suffering from general pollution, climate change-driven habitat loss, resource competition from invasive species, dwindling food resources due to expanding fisheries, and weakened immune systems, possibly from all this stress (little wonder).
But not all penguin populations are hurting. Gentoo communities are actually growing, and they may have their bathroom habits to thank.
Time-lapse images of a Gentoo colony on Cuverville Island reveal that when the birds move into densely snow covered areas, their guano spurs melting of snow and ice. It’s likely the albedo effect at work: the guano’s dark, heat-absorbing color may trap more Antarctic sunlight than the surrounding white landscape, which reflects light.
This loo-commotion uncovers the rocks buried beneath the frozen layer that Gentoos use for nesting, and the earlier access to breeding sites may be the secret to their success.
It’s possible the snow and ice is disappearing simply thanks to the large flock wandering around on top of it. The penguins, meanwhile, don’t seem to be actively undertaking snow removal—they’re just being penguins.
So who solved the potty puzzle? The findings come from a year’s worth of footage gathered by the citizen science project Penguin Watch, a program run by Oxford University and the Australian Antarctic Division.
Penguin Watch has 50 cameras monitoring 100 colonies of Gentoo, Adelie, Chinstrap, King, and Rockhopper penguins. Volunteers sign up to label the resulting images via the online portal Zooniverse (they must first complete an online tutorial on how to distinguish between eggs, juveniles, and adults of each species).
Each click also helps train computer software to recognize penguins. Since the project began last April, 1.85 million pseudo-penguinologists have tagged more than 200,000 images.
Tom Hart, a real penguinologist from Oxford University who helps run the project, says the venture has saved researchers serious time, yielded data when the weather is too extreme for humans to collect it, and allowed researchers to start asking previously data-daunting questions.
“Our project relies on very old fashioned science—basic observation and lots of it,” Hart says. “This is the gold standard for studies, but meeting these standards is often physically impossible and prohibitively expensive.”
Along with the noteworthy poo findings, the non-invasive, penguin-friendly cameras have caught encouraging glimpses of other rare birds, including the Sheathbill, and plenty of curious and captivating photos of previously hidden penguin life.
The project is set to release another 500,000 photos for tagging over the next year, and Hart says he’s confident they’ll attract the volunteers needed to sort them.
“For most people being involved is a bit of a wish fulfillment,” he says, “but also a bit of an addiction.”