Antarctic Researchers Get The Giggles As Penguin Poop Produces Laughing Gas

'Something funny?' anon penguin, 2020. Roger Clark ARPS/Shutterstock

Nitrous oxide is just one of many air pollutants that has a detrimental effect on our climate, but for researchers studying nitrous-oxide-pooping King Penguins in Antarctica, it had an unexpected effect on their cognitive state. A recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment reports how Professor Bo Elberling and his team from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management went “cuckoo” while working surrounded by penguin poop.

"Penguin guano produces significantly high levels of nitrous oxide around their colonies," Professor Elberling told AFP. "After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo. One begins to feel ill and get a headache.”

Besides being a strain on the climate (it’s 300 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide), nitrous oxide is also a sedative gas often used in dentist’s offices. The side effects of the sedative, also known as laughing gas, include feelings of euphoria, relaxation, calmness, and fits of giggles as well as confusion, headaches, and nausea. Dental and medical procedures have granted YouTube with a rich library of entertaining videos showing how nitrous oxide can make people behave.

These teenage king penguins' changing plumage doesn't make it easy to keep a straight face. Tetyana Dotsenko/Shutterstock

The nitrous oxide sending the researchers loopy is the result of the penguin’s diet of krill and fish, both of which contain high levels of nitrogen. After defecating, nitrogen is released from the penguin guano into the ground where soil bacteria convert it into the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. The end result is a gaggle of giggly Antarctic researchers attempting to practice science. Now there’s something we’d like to see.

The team was exposed to the laughing-gas-laced guano while studying the impact of the penguins' nitrogen output and glacial melting on the levels of air pollutants in South Georgia. "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.


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