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Scientists suffer headaches when penguin poop turns into laughing gas

Penguins are adorable, but their feces aren't having the cutest impact on researchers.

There's something funny about penguin guano in Antarctica.
Sophie Elise Elberling

King penguins are big birds. The Antarctica residents eat a lot of seafood and make a lot of guano. It's all part of the circle of life, but it's created some challenges for scientists researching the birds. 

University of Copenhagen professor Bo Elberling contributed to a penguin-poop study published this week in the journal Science of the Total Environment. The paper investigated the relationship between the bird guano and fluxes in soil greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide, widely known as laughing gas, is one of those gases.

Researchers collected samples of soil and penguin guano in Antarctica.

Sophie Elise Elberling

"Penguin guano produces significantly high levels of nitrous oxide around their colonies. The maximum emissions are about 100 times higher than in a recently fertilized Danish field," Elberling said in a University of Copenhagen release. He described the experience of being around the colonies as "truly intense."

The research team analyzed soil and feces samples collected in Antarctica. The king penguin diet is high in nitrogen. What goes in one end comes out the other. Once on the ground, soil bacteria goes to work turning the nitrogen into laughing gas.

"After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo," Elberling said. "One begins to feel ill and get a headache." 

Researchers are building a better understanding of the impact of penguin excrement on the local environment. The gassy situation could end up growing as penguin colonies expand into new areas in Antarctica. 

Just don't blame the penguins for our larger climate problems. The "nitrous oxide emissions in this case are not enough to impact Earth's overall energy budget," Elberling said

At least scientists will know what they're getting into when they do fieldwork: a cloud of penguin-induced gas.