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Scientists have found that on the desolate Antarctic peninsula, nitrogen-rich poop from colonies of penguins and seals enriches the soil so well that it helps create biodiversity hotspots throughout the region. Their work, appearing May 9 in the journal Current Biology, finds that the influence of this excrement can extend more than 1,000 meters beyond the colony.
Researchers braved the wicked cold of the Antarctic and maneuvered through fields of animal waste and groups of clamoring elephant seals, gentoo, chinstrap, and Adélie penguins to examine the soils and plants surrounding these colonies. "What we see is that the poo produced by seals and penguins partly evaporates as ammonia," says Stef Bokhorst, a researcher in the Department of Ecological Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. "Then, the ammonia gets picked up by the wind and is blown inland, and this makes its way into the soil and provides the nitrogen that primary producers need in order to survive in this landscape."
Fact - Process - Ammonia - Area - Times
In fact, this process allows ammonia to enrich an area up to 240 times the size of the colony. And the results of this enrichment: a thriving community of mosses and lichens, which in turn supports an incredible number of small invertebrates, like springtails and mites. "You can find millions of them per square meter here, but in grasslands in the US or Europe, there are only about 50,000 to 100,000 per square meter," says Bokhorst. "It took months and months of sitting in the lab counting and IDing them under a microscope," he says, and he notes that trekking through the bitter temperatures of the Antarctic was far preferable to that task.
Ultimately, a circle of nutrient enrichment, known as the nitrogen footprint, surrounds...
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