Do Penguins Poop Laughing Gas?! New Study Says Yes!


A study was recently published regarding king penguins in the Antarctic and how the feces they excrete contains and contributes to a considerable expulsion of N2O or nitrous oxide, which is the chemical name of laughing gas.

The study was conducted by the University of Copenhagen researchers who looked into the guano or fecal matter of penguins in the largest colony of king penguins in the world, located at South Georgia, an island in the South Atlantic situated in St. Andrews Bay. They published their findings in the Science of the Total Environment journal.

Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen professor Bo Elberling says that the guano of penguins contains considerably high nitrous oxide levels. This makes this gas pervasive in their colonies.

When their gas emissions are at maximum, this amounts to 100 times more than the nitrous oxide content of the recently fertilized farming field. This amount is quite intense, mainly because the gas pollutes the atmosphere 300 times higher than carbon dioxide.

Elberling also talked about the challenges in researching a colony where nitrous oxide is prevalent and plentiful. It starts to have adverse effects on the body after staying within the environment for a few hours. One will start feeling ill, and headache also ensues.

The gas content is at such a heavy dosage; the amount is much higher than those small cylinders of nitrous oxide that can be seen lying around and floating in the Copenhagen area. This is due to the nitrous oxide being combined with several gases, such as hydrogen sulfide.

The researchers noted that the king penguins particularly liked to eat krill and fish as the primary food staple. These food items have a lot of nitrogen content, and upon their release together with the penguin feces, this nitrogen is used by bacteria on the ground to form nitrous oxide.

Elberling says that the nitrous oxide level is quite high in areas where penguins and their guano can be found. In contrast, areas with an absence of penguins and guano have lower concentrations of the chemical.

Elberling also shared that while the penguins’ emissions of nitrous oxide do not have any considerable impact on our planet’s total energy budget, the study’s findings are nonetheless additional new knowledge regarding the effect that the penguin colonies have on their environment. This, he says, is interesting since these colonies are more than ever gradually becoming more widespread.

The feces or guano may actually even help the environment’s biodiversity. In the previous year, another study focused on the crucial role of penguin feces in the biodiversity of the Antarctic region. It found out that the feces of elephant seals and penguins in Antarctica provide nitrogen that promotes the cultivation of life in that cold and inhospitable environment.

The feces, the researchers discovered, influence the biodiversity of areas as far one kilometer away, with the airborne ammonia going into the surrounding soils and providing the nitrogen needed by primary producers. Lichen, mosses, and countless small invertebrates rely on the excrement to survive.

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