Stef Bokhorst

Life thrives in Antarctic hot spots created by seal and penguin poop

In the desolate Antarctic landscape, life is hard to come by—unless you’re near some seal and penguin poop. The nitrogen-rich feces enrich the soil and create hot spots with lots of biological diversity that can extend more than 1000 meters beyond the borders of penguin and seal colonies, according to a new study.

Scientists trekked through fields of waste created by elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) and Antarctic penguins, including gentoo (Pygoscelis papua), chinstrap (P. antarcticus, pictured), and Adélie penguins (P. adeliae). The team examined the soil and plants surrounding these colonies at three separate locations along the Antarctic peninsula. Where there are more seals and penguins—and more of their poop—there was more biodiversity in the land, the researchers report today in Current Biology.

The feces partially evaporate as ammonia, which then can get blown more than 1000 meters inland by the wind and is absorbed into the soil, the scientists note. This ammonia then creates a cycle of nutrient enrichment: The nitrogen is consumed by plants and lichens, which in turn support an incredible number of invertebrates, including mites, springtails, and roundworms. In fact, the team identified millions of invertebrates per square meter of soil surrounding the seal and penguin colonies—up to eight times higher than the number found in other parts of the peninsula.

These findings offer scientists a stronger understanding of how life can thrive in the coldest place on Earth. Now, the big question is whether these biodiversity hot spots will create perfect breeding grounds for something else: invasive plant species that can threaten the future of these environments.