Antarctic Penguins Release An Extreme Amount Of Laughing Gas When They Poop, Study Finds

Cameron Frew


Penguins ThumbnailWikimedia/Antarctica Bound/Flickr

Antarctic penguins release a ‘truly intense’ amount of laughing gas in their poo.  

On South Georgia, a sub-Antarctic island just north of the icy continent, there’s huge colonies of king penguins. Here, the large birds eat krill, squid and fish, feed their young and produce boat-loads of poop, known as guano.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen looked at the link between the colonies, their faeces and fluxes in soil greenhouse gases on the island. While their emissions are too low to affect the planet’s overall state, one literally hilarious finding emerged.

King PenguinsPA Images

According to the study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, penguins release a large amount of nitrous oxide in their guano, better known as laughing gas.

Professor Bo Elberling, co-author of the study, explained as per Science Daily

Penguin guano produces significantly high levels of nitrous oxide around their colonies. The maximum emissions are about 100 times higher than in a recently fertilised Danish field. It is truly intense – not least because nitrous oxide is 300 times more polluting than CO2.

While nitrous oxide emissions in this case are not enough to impact Earth’s overall energy budget, our findings contribute to new knowledge about how penguin colonies affect the environment around them, which is interesting because colonies are generally becoming more and more widespread.

King PenguinsPA Images

Penguins produce such an inordinate amount of laughing gas due to their food supply – namely, fish and krill, both of which absorb nitrogen from phytoplankton in the ocean. After pooping, all that nitrogen is released into the ground, with soil bacteria then converting it into a greenhouse gas.

Elberling added that it was clear ‘the level of nitrous oxide is very high in places where there are penguins – and thereby guano – and vice versa, lower in places where there is none’. However, it wasn’t the easiest research to conduct, neither mentally nor physically.

King PenguinsPA Images

The professor explained: 

After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo. One begins to feel ill and get a headache. The small nitrous oxide cylinders that you see lying in and floating around Copenhagen are no match for this heavy dose, which results from a combination of nitrous oxide with hydrogen sulphide and other gases.

The researchers hope their findings will help to learn more about ‘how and when to fertilise vis-à-vis the optimal conditions for soil bacteria to produce nitrous oxide’, particularly in Danish agriculture.

This gives a whole new meaning to toilet humour.

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Topics: Animals, Antarctica, Environment, penguins


Science of The Total Environment and 1 other
  1. Science of The Total Environment

    Combined effects of glacial retreat and penguin activity on soil greenhouse gas fluxes on South Georgia, sub-Antarctica

  2. Science Daily

    Researchers go cuckoo: Antarctic penguins release an extreme amount of laughing gas

Cameron Frew
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