Scientists from a citizen science project named Penguin Watch have discovered how penguins in the Antarctic use their own poop to build breeding homes.
Members of the University of Oxford-sponsored organization traveled to Cuverville Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula and spent a year there studying the local Gentoo penguins. They were able to capture thousands of hours' worth of footage showing how these Antarctic birds behave during their breeding season.
In one of Penguin Watch's videos posted by the Oxford Science Blog on YouTube, a group of Gentoo penguins gathered in one spot and started excreting their waste on the frozen ground. After a while, the researchers observed that the ice covering the spot began to melt as the dark-colored penguin guano, or poop, piled up.
The researchers believe that the Gentoo penguins melted the ice in order to make the spot more suitable for mating and nesting. It was made possible because the penguins' guano was able to gather enough heat even from the weak Antarctic sun.
This discovery could explain how Gentoo penguins can breed in Antarctica despite the region's harsh climate.
The footage is part of the 175,000 images that Penguin Watch collected during their stay at the Antarctic Peninsula last year. The images were taken using time-lapsed cameras.
"Time-lapse cameras have revolutionized our ability to collect data from a large number of sites simultaneously," Tom Hart, a penguinologist from Oxford, said.
"Until now, this has only been possible by putting GPS on penguins. The hope is that, by developing a non-invasive method, we can track penguins across the whole of the Southern Ocean without researchers needing to disturb them."
Before Penguin Watch's study, penguins in Antarctica could only be monitored by having biologists observe the birds all throughout the season. This proved to be very difficult because limited logistics in the region prevented scientists from reaching penguin colonies during their mating period.
Hart added that the penguins are faced with different environmental challenges. The researchers believe these could be caused either by changes in the climate or by direct disturbance from humans including fisheries.
By monitoring the penguins with time-lapsed cameras, Penguin Watch scientists hope that they can pinpoint which threats are affecting the population of penguins in the region.