Of Penguins, And People, And The End Of The World As We Know It

So NPR does a piece on penguins, and it gets me thinking about the end of the human race. Gotta wonder how that happens.

Yeah, anyway… it was a story about a new way of tracking penguins. Very cool–the scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) found out that colonies of penguins, on an ice floe for months on end, leave a signature… in poop. That can be seen from space. Yup, penguin guano can be seen from satellites.

Oddly enough, the whole concept put me in mind of this picture:

Different sort of poop, but you can definitely tell where we live from outer space. (I almost included a satellite picture of water pollution, but googling “satellite view of pollution” depressed me too much.)

One of the reasons the BAS was interested in looking for penguins is… they may be disappearing. Climate change may (or may not–thus the need for data) spell the end for huge percentages of penguins. Which news did not exactly lift my spirits.

I got to thinking (part of this is likely due to “Earth: 2100” on TV) about the really long view. No, longer than that. Longer. Double that. Still not even close. In this long view, we are not looking at penguin shit, but at the penguin’s great-great-great-great-[etc]-grand-daddy’s fossilized coprolites. My mom was a science teacher, and her rock collection had a number of coprolites in it–I think I disappointed one of my teachers once, by not being grossed out by the coprolite he passed around class. Anyway, I was thinking that, millions of years from now, after we have gone extinct (ok, stop–take a breath, and realize what it takes for a father to write that), whatever species it is–if there is one–that finds curiosity selected for, may stumble upon our own coprolites. Of course, in this particular society, we process our wastes to such extent that finding literal coprolites from humans might be difficult. But metaphorical coprolites–like, say, Pittsburgh–will be their Dinosaur National Monument Equivalent. Future civilization, should future species take the civilization path (my money is on the cephalopods), will find our trash, our toilets, our cities, our landfills… our shit. And they will examine our shit to try to determine what happened to us.


Some scientists have figured out
A means of penguin-snooping;
A camera, beamed from outer space
Can see where they’ve been pooping.

The penguins stay on floes of ice,
For months in just one place
Which leaves a stain of shit so big
It’s visible from space.

The guano—smelly, reddish-brown,
Corrosive, salty goo—
Leaves such a stain, ten colonies
Were found when they were through.

Of course, the waste we humans leave
Is seen from space as well—
The lights by night, the smoke by day
(At least, in space, no smell)

I wonder, once we’ve run our course
And disappeared for good
Will, someday, trails of human waste
Be seen and understood?

Will future beings study us—
As findings will permit—
And learn how humans went extinct
By studying our shit?


  1. says

    It's on my list now. According to my kids, I need a good book, so I can read it instead of talking to their friends and embarrassing them this weekend…

  2. says

    Love The Chrysalids. Used to teach it in conjunction with my unit on science and skepticism to high-schoolers in English class. Along with Macbeth. :)

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