When scientific study isn’t all that scientific… by Pablo the Penguin

Notebook belonging to Sanderson, showing his vision of the giant penguin.

This week I’ve found out a lot about “fake news”. I suppose this would be the popular term for it anyway. What I found out was that what appears to be fact when someone writes about it convincingly can turn out to be misleading or even totally wrong. That’s why “evaluating sources”, as my librarian friends would say, is important.





The other day I discovered some newspaper reports from 1948, saying that numerous people has seen a giant penguin on Clearwater Beach in America. The huge bird was described as 15 feet tall and supposedly left big tracks along the beach. Naturally this report excited me, as the resemblance to Pip in his current state sounded undeniable.

Further reading revealed that Ivan Sanderson, noted zoologist and science commentator for WNBC in New York, visited Florida to study the tracks and carry out a scientific enquiry into the cases. Because it was a scientific enquiry, I assumed it would be rigorous and reliable. Mr Sanderson conducted a 2 week on-site investigation, resulting in a 50 page technical report. He also summarized the case in his 1969 book More Things, expressing his conviction that the case was authentic. It all sounded fantastic.

Sanderson noted, for example, that “the tracks invariably followed the gentlest gradients even at the cost of considerable meandering and, secondly, that they meticulously avoided all possible snags and obstacles even down to the smallest bushes… these are, one and all, typical animal traits.”

A giant, 15-foot tall penguin, Sanderson concluded, must be the explanation, one which “would obviously have to be a wanderer in Florida, out of its natural element and perhaps lost”. Justifying himself further, Sanderson said “that any man or body of men could know so much about wild animal life as to make the tracks in just the manner that they appear, but that they also should be able to carry this out time and time again at night without anybody seeing them or giving them away… is frankly incredible.”

The tracks left by this penguin were large; 14 inches long and 11 inches wide, with three long toes and claws. The penguin had apparently had come out of the Gulf of Mexico at the south end of the beach and, taking 4-6 foot strides, walked for more than 2 miles in the soft sand before returning to the water. I could image Pip doing exactly that, if he were to find himself in America and not here in Portsmouth, where the beach is covered in pebbles.

Over the next 10 years, the same footprints seemed to appear frequently; on Clearwater Beach, on Indian Rocks Beach, on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, on St. Petersburg Beach, and on the beach at Sarasota. The penguin also left prints on Honeymoon Island off the coast at Dunedin, along the banks of the Anclote River north of Tarpon Springs, and on the banks of the Suwannee River.

And yet, despite Sanderson’s assertion that scientific study had proven the existence of the giant penguin, it seems now that the whole thing was a HOAX!

Fake penguin feet!

This horrible (and disappointing) discovery was made when I found another report saying that on April 11, 1988, St. Petersburg Times writer Jan Kirby revealed that the penguin hoax had been perpetrated by Tony Signorini and Al Williams. Signorini said that they had been inspired by a photograph of fossilized dinosaur tracks, and showed the reporter the huge penguin feet made of iron used in creating the tracks!

I’d been so convinced that this was a real, actual lead. So convinced, in fact, that I’d toyed with the idea of pitching a research trip to Clearwater myself. The librarians here say that’s why a thorough search of the literature on a subject is important BEFORE you start going too far into an assignment or project. They also told me this wasn’t the first penguin hoax!

1931 newspaper image of a giant penguin

Apparently, in 1931 a German newspaper ran a “news photo” of a giant five-foot-high penguin affectionately kissing a man with its long beak. The accompanying story explained that the “Gargantuan” penguin had recently been brought to Berlin and was being kept in a private zoo. Eventually, the plan was to take it on a tour of the world as part of an attraction in a circus. The story created a minor sensation in Berlin. Pet store owners, animal trainers, and naturalists all received numerous calls from people wishing to see the giant penguin. A few days later the newspaper admitted that not only was the picture a composite, but that the bird shown was a stuffed member of its species!!!

I’m now more confused than ever. Who and what do I trust? The librarians say I should stick to Discovery and avoid random search engine results, so maybe I’ll have to do that. After all, there must be an answer out there somewhere…



Photo of Sandersons notebook from: http://thebiggeststudy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/short-post-on-tall-tale.html

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