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Penguin Poop Laughing Gas Drives Scientists ‘Cuckoo’

Researchers studying the greenhouse effects resultant from retreating glaciers and growing penguin populations have been getting high off of laughing gas. But it’s not what you think. The laughing gas is a natural byproduct of penguin poop decomposing in the local soil. The researchers still say, however, that the laughing gas derived from the penguins’ feces can drive people “cuckoo.”

A colony of king penguins

Pismire 

The researchers, based in Denmark and China, recently published their findings in the journal, Science of the Total Environment. The actual study looked at the increase in greenhouse gases—including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—occurring as a result of the growth in local penguin populations. The study took place on South Georgia Island. That’s located in the South Atlantic just north of the Antarctic Circle.

The local glaciers have been retreating over the last 50 years according to the researchers’ study. As the glaciers have retreated, more and more livable land has been made available for local king penguins. The land opened up by the retreating glaciers has been so beneficial, in fact, that it now hosts the world’s biggest king penguin population, including 300,000 breeding birds.

South Georgia island on the map

Google

That massive population of penguins leaves behind a lot of feces—technically referred to as guano. Their poop is rich in nitrogen. According to Mental Floss, this is because the penguins eat lots of fish and krill, which are both high in nitrogen. When that nitrogen-rich guano seeps into the ground, microbes in the soil decompose it and emit nitrous oxide—a.k.a. laughing gas.

“After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo,” the study’s corresponding author, Bo Elberling at the University of Copenhagen, told Agence France-Presse. He added that after being around the guano for a while, “One [also] begins to feel ill and get a headache.” Note that this is because when one inhales nitrous oxide, it displaces the air in their lungs, preventing oxygen from getting to their brain and blood.

Note: The above video shows penguins pooping. NSFW! Don’t watch while eating!

As for the actual climate effects of the decomposing penguin poop, it seems the atmosphere has seen a large local increase of nitrous oxide. The study notes that the penguins still don’t produce enough nitrous oxide, or any other greenhouse gas, to have a noticeable impact on global climate.

Feature image: Christopher Michel / Emmanuel Cordoliani