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VERIFY: Missouri Department of Conservation says viral photo of I-55 bear family is fake

Here's one simple way to tell an edited photo from a real one.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Amid a summer of bear sightings in and around the St. Louis area, a picture shared on Facebook turns out to be too good to be true.

The photo appears to show black bear and two cubs crossing the southbound lanes of Interstate 55 at the Butler Hill Road exit in south St. Louis County.

It quickly blew up online, averaging more than a thousand shares each hour for four hours, and attracting a lot of attention for the author.

THE QUESTION

Were a bear and two cubs photographed crossing I-55 in South County?

THE SOURCES

Missouri Department of Conservation

And a Google image search

THE ANSWER

Internet-savvy Facebook users were quick to spot the fake, but not before it had been commented on and shared in earnest.

WHAT WE FOUND

An MDC spokesperson confirmed that there were no bears spotted on I-55 in broad daylight.

"Yes, that photo has been confirmed to be a fake. Please feel free to urge people to stop spreading it!" wrote spokesperson Dan Zarlenga.

And a quick Google search found the photo that was used as source material for the edit. It came from a real photo of bears crossing the street taken by nature photographers Joseph and Nimmida Pontecorvo, featured in the PBS documentary Bears of the Last Frontier in 2011.

Credit: PBS
A photo of black bears crossing the road taken by nature photographers Joseph and Nimmida Pontecorvo.

Another big clue that the photo from the Facebook post is an edit comes from the shadows that the editor added behind the bears.

Shadows from a single light source, like the sun, should line up with the light source and the thing casting the shadow in a straight line, since that is how light travels to the naked eye.

For the Facebook photo, drawing those lines between the cars and their shadows aligns with the sun low in the sky to the east. The bears' shadows all point in different directions, none of which are long enough to be realistic for that time of day.

Credit: KSDK
Green lines between cars and their shadows point in the direction of the sun. Red lines between the bears and their shadows point in random directions.

So we can VERIFY: the photo is fake.

But it’s no surprise this disinformation spread like wildfire. MDC said the St. Louis area had more real black bear sightings this year than ever before, including populated areas like Wentzville and Wildwood in Missouri, and in Monroe County and Mount Vernon in Illinois.

One bear roamed from Kirkwood, through Brentwood, and finally into a Richmond Heights neighborhood, where it was tranquilized in a tree and released into the wild.

RELATED: Here's why bear sightings are on the rise in Missouri and what you should do if you see one

You can see how many bear sightings have occurred in your area on the MDC website, where there is a map of confirmed sightings, some as close as Bella Villa in 2020.

The Verify team reached out to the author of the post. He responded saying, "I did not photoshop it."

Later, he changed the content of the post to include an advertisement for his tattoo business.

What can the 5 On Your Side VERIFY team factcheck for you? Let us know: email us at verify@ksdk.com or fill out the form below.