King Penguins Release So Much Laughing Gas, It Has a Funny Effect on Scientists


Scientists are finding it difficult to study king penguins because of the laughing gas produced by their feces.

King penguins. Photo: Liam Quinn

A new study by Danish researchers on the effects of gases released by the feces of Antarctic penguins brought an unexpected result: it’s making researchers go “cuckoo.”

“Penguin guano produces significantly high levels of nitrous oxide around their colonies,” said the head of the study, Professor Bo Elberling, of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management.

While studying colonies of king penguins on the Atlantic island of South Georgia between South America and Antarctica, “the researchers went ‘cuckoo’ from being surrounded by penguin poop”, he said.

Great colony of about 60,000 pairs of hatching King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) in Salisbury plain on South Georgia. Photo: Pismire

Researchers dispatched to the Antarctic or the nearby on the island of South Georgia to study king penguins in their natural habitat spend hours obeserving the animals in their immediate vicinity. That is when things can suddenly get out of hand.

Nitrous oxide has an effect very similar to the sedative laughing gas used at the dentist’s.

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

A King Penguin in St Andrews Bay, South Georgia, British Overseas Territories, UK. Photo: Liam Quinn

King penguins’ nitrogen-rich diet of fish and krill makes their feces a potent source of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more polluting to the environment than carbon dioxide.

“While nitrous oxide emissions in this case are not enough to impact Earth’s overall energy budget, our findings contribute to new knowledge about how penguin colonies affect the environment around them, which is interesting because colonies are generally becoming more and more widespread,” Elberling said.

A crèche of king penguin chicks at the Gold Harbour, South Georgia. Photo: Butterfly austral

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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