Reports of 150,000 penguin deaths are greatly exaggerated

Reports of 150,000 penguin deaths are greatly exaggerated

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Recent headlines, displayed prominently on news sites around the world, were alarming, such as: “150,000 Adélie penguins killed by iceberg.” The stories suggested our flightless black-and-white friends were cut off by a Rhode Island-sized iceberg from their food supply. It was too late to save the “Happy Feet” characters. But the reality was anything but black and white.

“These headlines, while eye-popping, are not necessarily true,” said Heather Lynch, an assistant professor in the Stony Brook University Department of Ecology and Evolution. The stories came from a recent study, published in Antarctic Science. Lynch did not participate in the study, but is involved in monitoring penguin populations from satellites. “This idea that [these] penguins have perished doesn’t reflect the biology in hand,” she said. It will take “many years” before scientists are able to sort out the effect of this iceberg on penguin survivorship.

That’s because penguins can take a year or two off from breeding during unfavorable environmental conditions, which means that penguins displaced from breeding by an iceberg aren’t likely dead.

The scientists in the original study were linking the change in the breeding penguin population at Cape Denison — the site of a research station for famous Australian geologist and explorer Douglas Mawson about a century earlier — with the number of nesting pairs recorded after the arrival of iceberg B09B in 2010.

“There was some concern that there were dead chicks or frozen eggs at the site,” Lynch said. “We need to be cautious about interpreting that as evidence of some kind of catastrophic mortality event. There’s extremely high chick mortality rate under normal circumstances. That is the cycle of life.”

Reports about penguins losing habitat, breeding grounds or access to food typically lead to the kind of questions that were central to the “Happy Feet” story: What role do humans have in the process and what action, if any, is necessary to save the birds?

Kerry-Jayne Wilson, the lead author on the study and the chairperson of the West Coast Penguin Trust in New Zealand, offered some perspective.

“We did not suggest adult penguins had died,” she said in response to an email request for comment. “Some media outlet started” this rumor.

She said she believes most of the missing penguins are probably “out at sea, having assessed conditions as unsuitable for breeding.”

The authors sent out a clarifying press release in response to the stories: “It is unlikely many, if any, adult penguins have died as a result of this stranding event. This iceberg stranding event only affects Adélie penguins in the Commonwealth Bay area; the millions of Adélie penguins breeding around the rest of Antarctica are not affected.”

So, where did the story go wrong? For starters, a press release announcing the study used the headline: “Giant iceberg decimates Adélie penguin colonies.” The statement suggests that breeding has declined in the area, without indicating that 150,000 of Mr. Popper’s pals perished.

I turned to a representative at SBU’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which teaches scientists to make their research accessible to the public, to see if there are any lessons from this communication misfire.

Elizabeth Bass, director emerita of the center, suggested scientists needed to know their audience when sharing their research. “Be crystal clear about your findings,” she advised. In all the courses the center teaches, the message is to stress characterizing the work in a way that’s “not going to be misunderstood.”

Lynch is concerned that these type of stories, taken out of context, make it more difficult to share well-grounded science from future studies with policymakers.

“At some point, people stop listening and that’s what concerns me,” she said. “Real science whispers, it doesn’t shout.”