Viral Mistake: The Case Of The 150,000 ‘Dead’ Penguins

  • Date: 22/02/16
  • Ben Collins, The Daily Beast

You may have read that an Antarctic colony of penguins was trapped by an iceberg and died, killed by climate change. But there’s a twist: All parts of the story turn out to be untrue.

Some good news for 150,000 dead penguins in Antarctica: They might not be dead. Bad news: There may not be any hope for the rest of us.

Major news outlets ran with a widely mischaracterized study from Australian and New Zealand researchers in Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica, saying enough penguins to fill three Yankee Stadiums had been trapped by an iceberg and, unable to fend for themselves, died.

The Guardian issued a death notice, saying “150,000 Penguins Die After Giant Iceberg Renders Colony Landlocked.”

Other news sources issuing death certificates included the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and CNN.

Bit of a problem: The research paper doesn’t—and never did—say that. Some penguins may have died, because penguins aren’t immortal. Others probably just moved.

“Maybe these birds moved. Maybe they died. There’s multiple scenarios that could’ve happened here,” Dr. Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist at the University of Minnesota, told The Daily Beast.

“But nowhere in the paper said there was death and destruction.”LaRue would know. She did the initial census on the Adélie penguins two years prior to the study done by University of New South Wales researchers that came out early this month.

“I doubt [widespread death and destruction], and the reason I doubt that is that the behavior of Adélie penguins has already been observed in similar circumstances,” she said.

Their migratory patterns were recorded in 2001 after the iceberg B-15 caused them to move, she said.

“It caused them to move a lot more than they normally do. There’s no reason to believe a colony in a similar situation didn’t do the same thing,” she said. “It’s not as fun to report and I get that. At the same time, [the initial reports are] inaccurate. There wasn’t anything in the paper saying these animals died.”

LaRue made the rounds midweek to gently nudge some news outlets closer to reality, and then headlines appeared that made it seem like the 150,000 penguins had been hiding under rubble the whole time and there was a brand new development, or that the penguins had come back from the dead. (“Adélie Penguins May Have Survived Iceberg Grounding In Antarctica,” wrote Nature World News.)

The only thing The Daily Beast can confirm is that there are no zombie penguins, just zombie reporters.

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