Penguin choices: Either the scientist comes and makes you puke, or else your whole family’s poop gets photographed from space.

Science News gets the dirt on how we use space hardware to discover what penguins are eating:

Because Adélie penguins cluster together at a predictable rate, researchers have figured out how to count penguin colonies just from their huge poop stains. Last year, for instance, a group led by Stony Brook University ecologist Heather Lynch reported finding a supercolony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, from their feces.

Casey Youngflesh is a quantitative ecologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Until a few months ago, he was a graduate student in Lynch’s lab. During that time, he made several trips to the Antarctic Peninsula, visiting Adélie penguin colonies by boat from either the tip of South America or the Falkland Islands. That required crossing some of the roughest waters on the high seas, and, he says, “it can get a little bit hairy sometimes, especially on the smaller vessels.”

To most people, the poop looks pink. (It also stinks, as you might expect.) The guano gets its color from the carotenoids in the carapace of krill the penguins eat. But what a penguin eats can alter that color. And so those subtle changes in color can indicate what a bird has consumed.

Back on the ship, Youngflesh would take each sample and make a “poo patty.” Each patty was “kind of the size of a hamburger patty,” he says (and, from the picture he supplied, looked a bit like one, too). He’d run the patty through a spectrometer, which measures the sample’s colors across the electromagnetic spectrum, even in wavelengths like infrared and ultraviolet that the human eye can’t see. Then the patty went into a dehydrator so it could be shipped back to the lab.

Once Youngflesh had collected and analyzed poop from a dozen or so colonies along the Antarctic Peninsula, he used statistics to translate the fine spectrometer data to the coarser data in the Landsat imagery. Then each pixel of an image could be connected to the dominant item on the penguin menu: fish or krill. Adélie penguins in West Antarctica tend to eat more krill, and those in East Antarctica eat more fish, Youngflesh reported December 12 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C.