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Center for Biological Diversity:
io9, April 2, 2012

Penguin poop can be seen from space
By Esther Inglis-Arkell

A combination of background coloring and penguin gastrointestinal prowess allows the Emperor penguin to be tracked by satellites orbiting the Earth. And ecologists love it.

As anyone knows, there are some serious downsides to white carpeting, namely stains. All it takes is a single errant glass of juice, and the furniture has to be rearranged. White snow in Antarctica has the same problem — except there's rarely any furniture around.

Not that the creatures that mark up Antarctica really care. For one thing, they've got their own problems. Emperor penguins breed on sea ice, well away from the more stable ice on land. This means that their house and breeding ground can break up under their feet, especially in the warming days when chicks are most vulnerable. This is exacerbated by the fact that the penguins get together in gigantic flocks. These flocks are far too large for researchers to count, provided any researchers would like to go out on unstable ice in freezing temperatures.

The animals also wouldn't care because, if they had sentience, they would be proud of their rectal prowess. A study focused on Adélie and Chinstrap penguins shows that these birds can poop at four times the pressure that humans can. And at least they try to be hygienic about it — they sit at the edge of nests and poop forty centimeters backwards. Of course, that delicacy doesn't help when they're crowded together. The kindest thing anyone could say about a colony's breeding grounds would be that they're an homage to Jackson Pollock.

But this mess makes it easier to collect data. Anywhere the penguins go, their droppings are sure to follow. And the wide array of dark poop against the light snow can be spotted from orbiting satellites. By carefully monitoring the poop area's size, placement on the ice, and any paths leading to the ocean, scientists can get a sense of where penguins are and how they move. And they can do it without a human even setting foot in penguin territory. This has been fantastically useful for monitoring their populations, as other methods have proved damaging to the penguins. There is literally no interaction between the penguins and the people who monitor them. If only all feces could be that useful.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton