Scientists Who All Fall Sick Studying Penguins Discover Their Toxic ‘Trait’

It’s hard not to love penguins. Small, round, flightless creatures that waddle when they walk? Sign us up. Among the charming balls of fluff, the king penguin rules all. (Just don’t tell the emperor penguin.)

Scientists were studying king penguins down near Antarctica when something fishy happened: While gathering information about the birds’ effects on the environment, researchers began feeling sick. They were horrified to learn cause of their illness could spell doom for the future of the planet.

Penguins mate for life (for the most part), travel in packs called “rookeries,” and are talented ice-water divers, and out of all the species, king penguins are the most essential for scientific research.

Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images

To research these black-and-white birds, scientists headed to South Georgia. No, we’re not talking about the state of Georgia. Down in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, an island covered in glaciers acts as a lab for researchers to study a very strange phenomenon.

Photo by Alessandro Dahan/Getty Image

Over 300,000 adult king penguins have filled up the land in South Georgia over the past few years. The glaciers on the island have been slowly retreating as climate change ravishes the area. As land opens up, more and more penguins appear, which baffled the visiting researchers.

Photo by Susan Schulman/Getty Images

Even stranger, king penguins live among seals, gulls, arctic foxes, and a multitude of dangers. While they’re not classified as endangered just yet, there are some big problems facing the conservation of penguins across the globe.

Scientists predict that about 70% of king penguins will vanish in less than 80 years. With ocean waters rising in temperature, the breeding grounds where penguins feed are pushed further away. On top of this, king penguins compete with another major species for food.

Christine Matthews

Humans! As the numbers of popular seafood creatures dwindled, humans resorted to deep-sea fishing, causing major damage to the biomass that king penguins feed on. Yet, scientists noticed something wasn’t adding up in the penguin population.

Australian Antarctic Division

Despite fisheries depleting the resources of the Antarctic, the population of king penguins is currently increasing. How was it possible that the species could be thriving while their environment grew increasingly hostile? How can 70 percent of them vanish?

Deep Sea Fishers

The goal of the study was to identify why the ecosystem was acting strangely. If scientists could figure that out, they could discover other major causes of shifting climates. However, they needed to get up close and personal with the penguins to find answers. This brought about some problems.

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

While it’s illegal to actually touch or disturb wild animals while studying them, these scientists were pushing their limits. They explored the king penguins’ habitat extensively, which, at first, led to reports of headaches and lightheadedness. The scientists soon grew too sick to work properly.

Stephanie Jenouvrier

Their symptoms included eye, nose, and throat irritation. This led to wheezing, coughing, and, eventually, breathing difficulties. When the scientists began hallucinating, they knew something was very, very wrong. But what could be causing these startling symptoms?


The researchers assumed something in the South Georgian air was behind their sickness. After all, they weren’t consuming anything from the island, they wore gloves when handling samples, and they were bundled in layers. But they’d studied penguins in-person before. This time, something was different.

Photo by Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images

As their symptoms worsened, scientists were perplexed. Perhaps, they thought, it wasn’t something about the island of South Georgia. Perhaps it had to do with the penguins. But how could such small creatures have such a king-sized effect? That’s when scientists had a realization. 


Penguins eat a steady diet of fish and krill, as we mentioned earlier, which are both high in nitrogen, a colorless, odorless gas that forms nearly 80% of our atmosphere. It’s used to create ammonia, fertilizer, and even explosives. (Don’t worry — there aren’t any exploding penguins in this story).

Liam Quinn

While our little friends are safe from detonation, they aren’t safe from Mother Nature’s call. Penguin feces, referred to as “guano,” contains large traces of nitrogen. The fumes from guano may not smell great, but they alone won’t cause you harm. Once the guano hits the ground, however, something interesting happens.

Wikimedia Commons

The nitrogen in penguin guano sparks a toxic chemical reaction in the soil below. On South Georgia, this reaction made scientists feel loopy. The microbes they were breathing in had turned into nitrous oxide, which you may recognize by another name. 

“Laughing gas” is used by dentists and surgeons to put patients into a deep sleep. But the laughing gas used by professionals is mixed with a fair amount of oxygen to prevent adverse reactions. With this realization, scientists made another huge discovery.

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The king penguins’ guano was forcing South Georgia’s glaciers to retreat! How? The pollution from the nitrous oxide was over 300 times higher than carbon dioxide, which is the gas produced by us humans. Could mountains of penguin poop be causing the Antarctic more issues than climate change itself?

Well, not exactly. Guano may have an effect on glaciers, but scientists see no potential of a larger impact than that. However, as the king penguin population on South Georgia grows, so does the amount of penguin waste. This has led to some worrisome questions about the future.

Photo by Alessandro Dahan/Getty Images

With more and more king penguins taking up the island, will there be enough resources to keep them thriving? Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear so. For now, scientists on South Georgia plan to continue their studies with one small change.


“After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo,” said researcher Bo Elberling, right, to the AFP. From now on, researchers on South Georgia will be sure to add nose plugs to their itinerary.

Phillip Island, located just south of Melbourne, made a real splash with its Penguin Parade. Visitors eagerly lined up to watch the adorable wildlife make trips to and from the shore. But the parades might just end soon — for good.

Herald Sun

The aptly named little penguin is the smallest variety of penguin, with a weight of approximately two pounds. In the past, you couldn’t look anywhere in Phillip Island without spotting a couple of them. But recently, their numbers were thinning.

Due to an influx of foxes and other predators, the helpless penguins found themselves hunted down at an extreme rate. On one gruesome day, predators killed 180 of the poor penguins! By 2015, conservationists could only find six penguins on the entire island.

Park Rangers on Phillip Island had a real problem on their hands. Aside from the tourism revenue that kept the reserve going, the near-extinction of the little penguins threatened the entire ecosystem.

NBC News

Nobody was quite sure what to do. But then a colorful chicken farmer named Swampy Marsh stepped forward. He had a trick he used in his everyday work that he figured might just save the plummeting penguin population.

The Standard

To keep his flock of chickens safe from any would-be hunters, Swampy invested in a few Maremma sheepdogs to prowl his fields. These born herders chased away predators while also moving the birds to safer locations when needed.

If the Maremmas could shield some chickens, he wondered, could they do the same for penguins? Phillip Island understood they had no other real option. They got to training some dogs as soon as they could.

Before long, Phillip Island set the dogs out on guard patrol. The Maremmas didn’t even have handlers with them. A self-reliant breed, they alone covered the expanse of the island. The park rangers waited with bated breath.

Sure enough, the sheepdogs did the trick! Foxes and other predators fled to the mainland, and the little penguin community started bouncing back.

Christopher Martin

Soon, in fact, their numbers climbed back into the triple digits! The Maremma experiment was such a success that it inspired a family film called Oddball. However, another species threatened the struggling birds: mankind.


Manmade disasters pose possibly the biggest threat to endangered species all over the world. For the little penguins, recent oil spills off the Australian coast wreaked havoc to their habitat.

Fortunately, conservation groups stepped in to help clean up the animals and their homes. But one quick scrub couldn’t wash away the entire problem. The oil spill can cause longer lasting-problems, like reducing the penguins’ ability to retain body heat.

As luck would have it, a novel solution would come from these halls in Southwest Australia. But make no mistake, this was no laboratory or gifted school. The penguin savior would come from a nursing home.

Alfie Date was already remarkable, as he held the title of Australia’s oldest man. Nevertheless, even at 109 years of age, he still had the energy to make a difference. Moved by the penguins’ story, he pulled out some yarn and his knitting needles.

With no time to lose, Alfie started knitting up a storm. A stack of colorful garments piled up next to his chair. Once Alfie’s hands couldn’t make one more stitch, he called the nurses to ship his hard work off to Phillip Island.

Crazy as it sounds, Alfie knitted sweaters for the penguins — and it worked! The perfectly sized clothing kept the birds warm and improved their buoyancy in the water. Plus, they didn’t look half bad.

National Geographic

Once other Australians got wind of Alfie’s heroic craftsmanship, they began sending their own penguin sweaters to Phillip Island, with some really cool designs to boot. You could almost say that Alfie’s sweater gambit worked a little too well.

National Geographic

Staff on Phillip Island became so overwhelmed with penguin clothing that they had to asked people to stop sending it over! The birds only needed the sweaters for a short while, and yet park rangers had enough to put on a whole fashion show!


However, the sweaters going viral raised a ton of awareness about the little penguins’ plight. People all over the world, not just around Melbourne, took notice of just how important these birds were to the ecosystem.

Twitter / Tatiana Danger

Ever since, the penguins’ numbers have continued their steady growth. Who ever thought a few dogs and some knitting could save an entire population from the brink of extinction? Researchers in other parts of the world saw dwindling populations of another species.

In the deep dark corners of the Bolivian rainforest, for instance, there live this frog with a wide brown body, big green eyes, and an orange chest holding an empty heart. He was alone. He had been for a very, very long time.

There, from the tropical freshwater marsh, he was captured by scientists who had never laid eyes on one of his kind before. To further study him, they brought the fat-bellied frog back to their labs.

Ever since that day, the frog had been living at the Cochabamba Natural History Museum where he was given the name “Romeo.” The question for the lonely frog was this: would he find his one true love? Or would “love be a smoke made with the fume of sighs?”

See, at first, researchers and frog experts assumed that Romeo was the very last Sehuencas water frog remaining on Earth. After all, his habitat has been greatly affected by deforestation and climate change…

But both the researchers and Romeo refused to give up hope. Their new goal for the next decade was to find him a Juliet. If the two got along, he would no longer be lonely, and if they really got along, they might be able to repopulate the Sehuencas species.

For the scientists, boosting the frog population was a beneficial goal in more ways than one: they’d save another species from extinction, further study these little guys, and restore balance in the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest.

Thus, the biologists got to work; they searched endlessly throughout the forest and even created a profile for Romeo on Still, for an entire decade, “one” remained the loneliest number.

Zoologist Teresa Camacho then led a frog-search expedition in December of 2018. She and her team would stick their hands in creeks and feel for water frogs since the creatures can’t easily be spotted underwater.

“We were tired, wet and disappointed,” said Camacho, who believes that contaminated waterways on top of all the other habitat changes have driven the Sehuencas water frog close to extinction. “Then I said, ‘Let’s do one more creek.'”

Suddenly, Camacho and her team heard a tiny splash and noticed some movement in the water. They reached for the creature right away but alas: it was an entirely different species of frog.

However, not all hope was lost. That frog jumped away, leading the team to a tiny waterfall. There, underneath the stream of a little crashing wave, researchers saw a brown frog with big green eyes and an orange belly.

Unfortunately, this frog would not be Romeo’s partner in repopulating the species. While this little fella could’ve been great company to the museum loner, he was a male! Still, this meant there were more Sehuencas out there. There was hope to finding Romeo a Juliet.

The next day, the crew returned to the creek one more time and… bingo! They managed to catch four more frogs: two males and two females. While three of them were too young to reproduce, one female was exactly the right age. Now all they needed was some chemistry…

Although Romeo found no luck in online dating, this adult female could very well be the one. Could his life of isolation finally be over? It was a tough call because she had a completely opposite personality from Romeo’s!

“Romeo is really calm and relaxed and doesn’t move a whole lot,” Camacho Badini told BBC. Juliet, she said, was “really energetic, she swims a lot and she eats a lot and sometimes she tries to escape.”

On Valentine’s Day of 2019, the two love frogs would be set up on their very first “date” in the hopes of procreating and saving their entire species. No pressure, though, right?

If their personalities weren’t compatible, the looks could be all they needed. “She has beautiful eyes,” Alcide d’Orbigny Museum Director Ricardo Céspedes said about Juliet, who was quarantined until lab tests come back.

Scientists needed to make sure she was free of the dangerous chytrid fungus — known to have killed entire frog populations — before she met Romeo. Otherwise, she could’ve done much more harm than good!

Romeo was actually quite shy, didn’t swim much, and was “a little overweight” but that could change! “We’ll have to provide some sort of current to get him a little more exercise,” Camacho said.

If Romeo didn’t get kissed and turned into a prince, there were always a few other solutions: the biologists could attempt in-vitro-fertilization or rely on the younger frogs to breed when they were ready.

The Bolivian Museum of Natural History has previously succeeded in preserving the rare Titicaca frog, so if anyone is up to saving the Sehuencas, it’s these well-trained experts.

Now all there was left to do was wait for Valentine’s Day and see whether the Montague-Capulet romance would bloom. At least for now, Romeo no longer has to live in solitude, and there’s gonna be one less lonely frog.

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