These patties might look like tasty burgers, but you definitely wouldn’t want to eat them. That’s because they’re actually globs of penguin poop! Ecologist Casey Youngflesh collected the guano, or bird droppings, to learn more about what Adélie penguins in Antarctica have been eating.
Adélie penguins nest in colonies containing up to half a million birds. So there’s no shortage of droppings, says Youngflesh. “When you have 100,000 penguins pooping all over the place, it builds up. There’s so much, you can see it from space!”
Traveling by ship, Youngflesh visited different penguin colonies throughout Antarctica. He scooped up the birds’ guano into bags. Back aboard the boat, Youngflesh would spread the poop into patties with a butter knife. Then he used an instrument called a spectrometer to measure the colors of each sample. “Guano that’s more white means the penguin ate more fish,” says Youngflesh. “More pink means it ate more of a tiny shellfish called krill.”
By examining penguin poop, Youngflesh hopes to learn how the birds’ diets are being affected by changes in their ecosystem—a community of living things interacting with their physical environment. Climate change is causing some regions of Antarctica to warm, which can alter the type of food available to penguins and other animals that live there.
While Youngflesh doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty for the sake of studying penguins, the poop’s fishy aroma can make working with it unpleasant. Its scent is so strong, it seeps into the scientist’s clothes. “You can’t get the smell out!” says Youngflesh.