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Penguins and their strange habits: RT myth-busting in Antarctica

Published time: May 19, 2011 08:01
Edited time: May 20, 2011 12:59

There is a long-standing myth that Antarctic penguins flip over at the sound of a passing plane. Unable to right themselves, they risk dying a terrible death in the snow. RT’s team went to great lengths to verify the story once and for all.

Back in 1982, British pilots in the Falklands allegedly observed the phenomenon as they flew over penguin colonies. They said the birds would topple over as they lifted their heads to watch the planes fly by, then penguins were left on their backs by the thousands, unable to right themselves. But is this story true?

“I think that it is something that is widely-known amongst the public, but generally regarded amongst anyone that knows and thinks about it as a bit of a myth, to be honest. An Antarctic Falkland Islands’ myth,” said Stuart from the British Antarctic Survey.

As for the second part of the tale, a special person had to be employed to turn the birds right-side-up after they fell, otherwise they would die.

One German ornithologist, Anke, we spoke to claimed that this indeed was her job. “It is my job to look for penguins and go every day to see whether they fall over and to get them up again,” she said.

A further look into Anke’s credentials left some doubt, as well as a check with Viktor Vinogradov, the chief of Russia’s Bellingshausen Station, a base located in a unique place, between an airstrip and a penguin colony.

“No, no, we do not have anyone who does that job here!” he said.

With all of the controversy surrounding the rumors, the RT team decided to go to the source itself to hear what they had to say about the entire issue. Unfortunately, the penguins were remaining silent on the topic.

However, careful observation revealed that sometimes the penguins appeared to have special dances and that in a hurry they could be clumsy, and often slipped.

There was even evidence found that they were highly intelligent and divisive creatures.

“Penguins are actually very smart birds,” Vinogradov said. “Sometimes when they come to the edge of the ice you see them peeking over, looking for leopard seals. If one gets too close to the edge, another penguin will push him in as a sacrifice to test the waters.”

The internet myth-busting site Snopes.com says that a British scientific team actually did research to see if the claims were true. They found that the penguins only scattered from the noise of the airplanes and not one single penguin had toppled backwards.

However, with no real evidence on offer, RT decided to do a final test with a little help from the Chilean Air Force. The mission was to see if we could put this myth to rest once and for all. 

The experiment proved that the penguins are safe and no one should be moving south for jobs that simply do not exist.

­Read details of RT’s Antarctic adventures in Sean Thomas’s blog

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