A recent study revealed that bird poop or the seabird guano might be the reason why the Falkland Islands are covered with tussac grasses, which animals on the island graze upon.
In the British Overseas Territory, a small treeless archipelago almost 500 kilometers east of Patagonia, Falklands consists of two large islands, the East and West Falklands, and hundreds of smaller islands. Much like New Zealand and Scotland, the islands have novel history, ecology, and challenges.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons )
A recent study revealed that bird poop or the seabird guano may be the reason why the Falkland Islands are covered with tussac grasses which animals in the island graze upon.
Bird poop enriched the nutrient-depleted soil
The study showed that the seabirds arrived on the islands 5,000 years ago when the climate was colder and more abundant. As the birds lived on the island, they deposited nitrogen-rich guano in the once nutrient-depleted soil.
This made the soil more fertile, allowing tussac grasses to grow up to 10 feet tall and causing occasional wildfires.
The sudden and potentially large amount of bird droppings improved the islands’ environmental makeup and overall health.
It increased the concentrations of phosphorous and zinc, grass pollen accumulation rates also increased, spreading grass all over the islands.
Researchers from the University of Maine studied the effect of seabirds on grasslands, analyzing 14,000-year-old peat records. The peats were made of damp sediments from mostly decomposed vegetation.
The undecomposed tussac samples preserved in the peat were also analyzed, which revealed that grass pollen increased tremendously within 200 years of the bird’s arrival.
The seabirds resettled in the islands as the planet was undergoing a cooling phase around five millennia ago, the researchers said.
It is, however, unknown why the cooler temperature enticed the birds in the Falkland Islands.
Importance of Tussac Grassland
Tussac (Poa flabellata) is an endemic perennial plant that thrives along the South Atlantic coastlines. It is found only in South America (Tierra del Fuego), the Falklands, South Georgia, and nearby islands. The plant grows to as much as 2 meters and is an integral part of a symbiotic coastal system.
Tussac tolerates extreme salt stress and can photosynthesize even in temperatures below zero degrees Celsius. It also serves as a habitat and cover to various birds and marine mammals. The guano from birds fertilizes the grass while penguin burrows provide its natural soil aeration. Tussac is also known as high-quality feed for livestock.
The environmental value of bird droppings
Dulcinea Groff, the leader of the research team from the University of Maine, said that their research provides the environmental value of bird poop and raises questions about where and how the seabirds will go as the climate warms and sea levels rise.
The study recommends that conservation efforts in the South Atlantic should be prepared for these species to find new breeding grounds at a warmer temperature. Still, those locations may not provide adequate protection for the birds.
According to scientists, seabirds could also be potentially sensitive to changes in sea surface temperatures. This sensitivity leads to dire consequences for their food supplies because of rising ocean temperatures.
Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor of paleoecology and plant ecology in the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, said that the study on the seabird’s guano in the Falkland Islands underlines the value of bird’s poop and is also a “powerful reminder of why we need to understand how different ecosystems are connected as the world warms.”
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