22 February 2016: Contributed by: Yan Ropert-Coudert, Graham Hosie and Mark Hindell from SCAR’s Life Sciences Scientific Steering Group and the Expert Group on Birds and Marine Mammals (EG-BAMM)
If we are to believe the media coverage of the recent article by Wilson et al. (2016) a giant iceberg has caused one of the most impressive mass mortality events that penguins have ever known. The headline proclaims that no less than 150,000 Adelie penguins have died because of a massive iceberg (B09B) grounding off Cape Denison, Antarctica. How can an iceberg kill that many birds? Did it fall from the sky and crush the birds in one go? (See here for an example story).
Reading further, the reports imply that the birds have starved due to the iceberg blocking their access to the sea, and that this has taken a number of years. In fact there is no evidence for a mass mortality event. Rather, the colony has reduced in size because the birds have had to go elsewhere in search of a suitable place to breed – there are not 150,000 dead penguins.
What is disturbing is that, in a quest for a sensational headline this misconception is now going viral over the Internet generating unwarranted concern and greatly distorting the actual message in the journal article the journalists are supposedly reporting accurately. We’d like to plead with journalists to “check the facts” and tone down the sensationalism.
There are real and serious issues regarding the future of Antarctic wildlife, which need to be brought to public’s attention which make for enough sobering and dramatic reading without resorting to cheap and inaccurate headlines.
In the end the culprit wasn't the iceberg, it's the need for sensation!