The Case of the 150,000 ‘Dead’ Penguins

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.

Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty

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.

We’ll know eventually from satellite photos just how dead the penguins are, but LaRue wants to make two things clear:

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• The research paper never killed—or unkilled—a Tallahassee-size pride of penguins.

• Even if it did, the rush to link the so-called kill-off to climate change—which outlets then did—is equally nuts., for example, wrote, “150,000 Penguins Have Disappeared in Antarctica. Thanks, Climate Change!”

“They likely have nothing to do with each other,” said LaRue. “This is an iceberg. It’s the thing I find commonly, doing work in the Antarctic. Certain outlets will make links when there aren’t any. It’s ridiculous.”

And here’s the dumbest part of this entire saga: Somebody then tried to use LaRue’s public revisions of the initial stories to say, hey, climate change ain’t so bad!

“Contrary to Grist’s sarcastic headline, the Adélie penguins—if given a say—might be thankful for some global warming,” wrote Financial Post’s Lawrence Solomon.

He said it might be easier for them to nest that way. That’s like saying a good way to warm up your house this winter is to burn it to the ground.

“Ugh, yeah,” said LaRue. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Please, Ice Gods, spare the penguins next time. Take us.