Antarctic moss survives by eating 5,000-year-old penguin poop

Nature is full of examples of species that will go to any lengths to survive, as survival of the fittest morphs into survival of the extremest. Some Antarctic moss has found what must be the most disgusting possible survival tactic.

According to Professor Sharon Robinson of Australia's University of Woolongong, the moss in question grows in a particularly nutrient-poor patch of eastern Antarctica. Since the soil is little more than sand and gravel, the moss must be finding a steady source of nutrients from somewhere else, and Robinson's analysis of the moss's chemical composition revealed nitrogen concentrations that had passed from algae and krill into a marine predator.

In other words, these nitrogen chemicals had once been part of a penguin's meal, which means the penguin must have excreted the nitrogen back out for it to end up in the moss. Penguin poop would indeed have the right set of nutrients the moss would need to survive. The only problem is that this region of Antarctica hasn't been home to penguins for thousands of years. And this is where an already kind of gross nature story takes a turn for the all-time disgusting, as Professor Robinson explained to BBC News:

"Between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago, on the site where the moss is now growing, there used to be [Adelie] penguins. There's fossil evidence to support that, and the little pebbles that the penguins use to make their nests are actually still there. The other thing that's still there is the penguin poo. And because Antarctica is so cold, those nutrients have just stayed frozen in the soil; they're now feeding this moss."

You know, somewhere around the fourth or fifth meal of millennia-old penguin crap, I might just go with extinction. Congratulations, moss of eastern Antarctica - you are officially way more hardcore than I could ever hope or want to be.

For more, check out BBC News. Image by giladr on Flickr.