Penguins are arguably the world’s most loved animals. With documentaries like“March of the Penguins” and animated feature films like “Happy Feet,” penguins have proven to be the kings of the box office. In fact, ever since Herbert Ponting and Cherry Kearton brought penguins to audiences in the early part of the 20th Century, penguins have been favourite subjects on both the big and small screens. I analyse the use of penguins in documentaries and feature films with respect to how accurate the portrayal is scientifically. I compare six features of penguins – involving their (i) distribution, (ii) habitats, (iii) phylogeny, (iv) morphology (v) ecology and (vi) breeding behaviour – and find that the persona of penguins as portrayed on the screen often bears little resemblance to the real thing. I conclude by questioning how much this matters to the communication of science about penguins if these aspects of the stories are true or not.

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March of the penguins makes for happy feet
The truth about penguins

Lloyd Spencer Davis   Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Penguins are arguably the world’s most loved animals. With documentaries like“March of the Penguins” and animated feature films like “Happy Feet,” penguins have proven to be the kings of the box office. In fact, ever since Herbert Ponting and Cherry Kearton brought penguins to audiences in the early part of the 20th Century, penguins have been favourite subjects on both the big and small screens. I analyse the use of penguins in documentaries and feature films with respect to how accurate the portrayal is scientifically. I compare six features of penguins – involving their (i) distribution, (ii) habitats, (iii) phylogeny, (iv) morphology (v) ecology and (vi) breeding behaviour – and find that the persona of penguins as portrayed on the screen often bears little resemblance to the real thing. I conclude by questioning how much this matters to the communication of science about penguins if these aspects of the stories are true or not.

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