Oh, what penguins leave behind


I get amazed sometimes by science.

I’m awed by the advances we’ve made in medicine, from orthopedics to cancer research and treatment to pills that not only can treat illnesses, but can also enhance one’s, well, I’m sure you get the same spam e-mails that I do. I’m intrigued by testing we can do to determine how old something is, and blown away by the fact that murderers have been caught because of the DNA left behind at a crime scene in the smallest traces of evidence.

We’ve seen scientific methods lead the way in the technology around us, from the smallest computer chip to the large-screen televisions so many of us flock to during football season. We see science in our ability to track hurricanes and nor’easters, and in improved nutrition in many breakfast cereals for our children.

It is a constantly evolving field, that quite often leads to an improved quality of life, or at least a method to provide answers to some of life’s questions.

And now we can use it to monitor penguin poop.

CNN reported earlier this week that British scientists are using satellite technology to locate emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica. Researchers have been struggling with keeping tabs of the colonies because of their natural camouflage and the sea ice arround them, so they’ve had to go a different route to keep track of their numbers and movements.

Hence, penguin poop.

“We can’t see actual penguins on the satellite maps because the resolution isn’t good enough,” mapping expert Peter Fretwell told CNN.com. “But during the breeding season the birds stay at a colony for eight months. The ice gets pretty dirty and it’s the guano stains that we can see.”

This kind of reminds me of how Ocean City, Md., gets a reading on their summer and holiday population numbers — by tracking toilet flushes in the town, and manipulating that by a number they assign for each person to flush throughout the course of a day. It would appear that we, like our feathered friends in Antarctica, can be counted on for our regularity when determining what is, well, regular.

Yup. I even lost myself on that one.

I’m a bit conflicted on this. I’m a science guy. Not that I have any talent or understanding of science, per se, but I do appreciate those who do, and value what research has provided us. And, while I’m not really a “tree-hugger” or a “go-save-every-animal” guy, I do value the concept that we should use everything available to us to learn as much about the world around us as we can.

But monitoring penguin poop from satellites? That just kind of screams out, “Somebody needs a hobby” to me.

“This is a very exciting development,” said penguin ecologist Phil Trathan to CNN.com. “Now we know exactly where the penguins are ... the next step will be to count each colony so we can get a much better picture of population size.”

By the way, that’s how you know you’re a true penguin ecologist. When you call finding penguin poop stains on ice through a satellite an “exciting development,” you have truly found your calling in life. Granted, that’s a call I wouldn’t have answered with the benefit of Caller ID, but I guess if you’re a penguin ecologist, and penguin poop gets...

But I digress.

To be fair, this method has helped scientists identify 38 penguin colonies in Antarctica — 10 of which were unknown before, according to the article. Current estimates put the total number of penguins in that region between 200,000 and 400,000 breeding pairs.

Now, what does that mean?

“Using satellite images combined with counts of penguin numbers puts us in a much better position to monitor future population changes over time,” said Trathan.

Well, I can accept that. By continuing to monitor the, well, guano stains, scientists can keep better track of the movements and numbers of the penguins — thus allowing them to know quickly if the sheer numbers begin to drop or if the penguins start looking for new homes. That, in turn, can tell them if something is affecting the penguins — like disease, drastic changes in temperature or loss of food sources.

And, if indeed that is the case, scientists can quickly begin to study those circumstances and perhaps save colonies of penguins, better understand climate changes in the region or stumble across something else that might be causing food sources to vanish.

Science often unearths one discovery while actually studying something else. So, yes, I still chuckle at the methods of monitoring the penguins, but at least I understand it a little now.

And that’s the straight poop.