Giggling Guano

Beneath cloudy, frigid skies

outcrops of fertilised laughter

glare knowingly from

sneering seas;

their steady retreat stained

by the crooked smile

of those who know

the joke,

has gone too far.

We trace lines in the filth,

dowsing for patterns

in droppings;

faces contorted to

manic snarls.

Monochromatic waves

ripple towards the sea;

the excesses of our excrement

washed up in their wake.

King Penguins at South Georgia Island (Image Credit: Brocken Inaglory).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has shown that penguin poo produces a significant amount of laughing gas.

South Georgia Island is located in the South Atlantic, just north of the Antarctic Circle. The island hosts the world’s biggest king penguin colony, with around 300,000 birds in total. These penguins survive on mainly fish, squid, and krill, which contain large amounts of nitrogen absorbed from phytoplankton in the ocean. This means that the penguins’ diets are high in nitrogen, which then passes from their faeces (guano is the name given to the excrement of seabirds and bats) into the soil, where bacteria converts the nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is more commonly known as laughing gas.

The level of nitrous oxide is very high in places where there are penguins (and thereby guano), and much lower in places where there is none, and whilst nitrous oxide emissions from these penguins are negligible in comparison to the impact of human emissions on Earth’s global energy budget, they do have an effect on the local environment. Over the past 50 years, global warming has resulted in the island’s glaciers retreating, which in turn has caused these king penguins to advance further inland. A future expansion of penguins into newly available ice-free polar coastal areas may therefore markedly increase the local greenhouse gas budget. As penguin colonies become more and more widespread, further research is needed to better understand how they affect the environment around them.

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