A number of studies have previously confirmed the transfer of organic matter, nutrients and trace elements into terrestrial ecosystems by marine vertebrates, especially seabirds, through their faeces in different parts of Antarctica (Santamans et al. 2017; Castro et al. 2022). These faecal inputs result in deposition and accumulation of potentially toxic elements such as As, Cd, Cu, Se and Zn in soils on the Antarctic Peninsula, which could lead to negative impacts on organisms and the environment. Although this study identified few statistically significant differences between non-influenced soils when compared with vertebrate-influenced soils, this may in part be a function of the different climates, geological heterogeneity of the areas, size colonies or even. relatively low sample sizes available, as visual inspection of the data obtained (Fig. 3) did suggest differences in the distribution of elements in the different soils.
Some studies have confirmed the transfer of elements from the sea to terrestrial ecosystems by marine vertebrates, whilst others have shown no or opposite trends. For example, Cipro et al. (2018) confirmed that seabirds input Cd, Hg and probably As, Se and Zn to their colonies. Sparaventi et al. (2021) highlighted that the high density of penguins in colonies and, consequently, the large amount of faeces released may contribute considerable amounts of trace elements. However, studies also identify no consistent pattern of change in concentrations of trace elements as a result of marine vertebrate influence (Nie et al. 2014; Abakumov et al. 2017; Santamans et al. 2017; Espejo et al. 2017; Abakumov 2018; Cipro et al. 2018; Bokhorst et al. 2019b, a; Alekseev and Abakumov 2020, 2021; Sparaventi et al. 2021; Castro et al. 2021, 2022). Our data are consistent with interpretations of Liu et al. (2013) and Cipro et al. (2018), who suggested that there may be selective enrichment of elements such as As, Cd, Cu, P, S, Se and Zn associated with the presence of seabirds. Soils from imperial shag and chinstrap penguin colonies had the highest concentrations of As, Se, Mg, Sr and Zn which are the elements positively correlated with SOM, as well as appearing to be directly proportional to colony size and density.
The data obtained in the present study indicate that soils obtained from a location not under the direct influence of marine vertebrates had trace element concentrations that were generally quite similar to those of soils obtained from many of the marine vertebrate colonies sampled. However, it is important to emphasize that the general lack of significance may be a consequence of the relatively small sample sizes for most groups. But also should be considered that the abundance of species in the breeding colonies is also an important factor, since the greater the number of individuals, the greater the collective potential to influence elemental concentrations.
In a few cases, the non-influenced soils recorded higher contents of some trace elements than did vertebrate-influenced soils, as was the case with Mn, Li and Tb contents being higher than in shag colony soils. Similarly, Castro et al. (2021) reported higher amounts of Mn, Ba, Co, Cr, Ni, and Sr in non-influenced soils when compared with ornithogenic soils, linking the dynamics of these elements to the parent material. Cipro et al. (2018) also reported higher levels of Co, Cr, Ni and Pb in control sites, hypothesizing that these elements are likely to be derived from sources other than colonies. It is also appropriate to note that wind can help to disperse elements from ornithogenic soils to other areas (Schmale et al. 2013), including to locations where there is no presence of marine vertebrates.
Comparing the influence of different vertebrate species on colony soils, there is a suggestion in our data of different processes taking place in the soils of imperial shag colonies, influencing the concentrations of some trace elements. The shag colony soils had the highest percentage SOM content and consequently higher concentrations of some elements that are positively related to SOM (i.e. As, Sr and Zn). However, soils of this species also had lower concentrations of several trace elements in comparison with soils from colonies of other marine vertebrate species. This may suggest that the form or properties of shag colony locations may differ from the other species, with consequential influences on trace element concentrations. Breeding colonies of this species characteristically have a thick layer of guano, indicating the scale of contribution to input of organic matter (Cipro et al. 2018). However, no studies have yet attempted to compare rates at which different trace elements may be leached away from colonies of different vertebrate species. For instance, it is plausible that the presence of guano changes the pH of the soil (making it more acidic), in turn leading to release of elements from adjacent rocks which are then leached from the soils to the marine ecosystem. Moreover, the differences in the diet of specific marine vertebrate species and potential of prey and predator species to bioaccumulate trace elements cannot be ruled out, since dietary differences between these species can lead to different absorption and consequent elimination of trace elements to the environment.
Studies of Antarctic soils have previously reported correlations between trace element levels and organic matter content (e.g., Espejo et al., 2017), supporting that organic matter may play a role in either remobilization or retention of specific elements in soils. Here, we observed positive correlations between SOM and As, Cd, Mg, Se, Sr and Zn. Alekseev and Abakumov (2020) reported positive correlations between total organic carbon and As and Hg content while Castro et al. (2021) reported positive correlations between carbon and Zn, Cu and Pb contents, indicating the enrichment of these trace elements due to the presence of seabirds. Alternatively, negative correlations may be due to a dilution effect as suggested by Nie et al. (2014) for rare earth elements in ornithogenic sediments. Furthermore, SOM modifies soil characteristics, which could increase leaching of some trace elements over time (Castro et al. 2021).