The tallest and heaviest of all penguin species, Emperor penguins are native to Antarctica and rely on the icy waters surrounding the frozen landscapes to hunt for food.
But what fish do Emperor penguins eat? And do any other kinds of marine life feature in their diets? Read on to find out more about the eating and hunting habits of these regal flightless birds.
A familiar subject of many wildlife documentaries, Emperor penguins depend on fish caught in the Antarctic waters for survival. Fish, particularly Antarctic silverfish, form the largest element of their diet, with squid and crustaceans also eaten.
Emperor penguins are able to dive to a maximum recorded depth of 564 m (1850 ft), and are capable of remaining submerged for around 20 minutes, pursuing squid in the ocean waters. Much of the time, dives are limited to around 50 m (160 ft), where fish and crustaceans are hunted.
Once they arrive on their breeding grounds, male Emperor penguins survive without eating or drinking for up to four months while they are incubating their eggs.
They rely on the energy stores they have accumulated earlier in the year, losing up to half their body weight in the process. Once the young have hatched, females return with food and males are able to return to the seas to hunt for themselves again.
To learn more about hunting techniques and survival adaptations of Emperor penguins when food supplies are limited, then please keep reading.
Antarctic Silverfish are one of the largest parts of an Emperor Penguin diet
Emperor penguins are not physically built for hunting on land, and obtain all of their dietary needs from the ocean waters. Fish forms the bulk of their diet; crustaceans and various types of squid are also hunted.
Antarctic silverfish are the most common fish species caught by emperor penguins, with bald notothen also important. Fish caught are generally at depths of up to 50 m (160 ft).
As well as fish, squid are a key part of the diet of emperor penguins, with birds diving to depths of over 500 m to catch four different types of squid, all less than 48 cm in length. These include hooked squid and glacial squid.
Antarctic krill, tiny crustaceans living up to 100 m (330 ft) below the surface of the ocean, are another important element in the diet of emperor penguins.
Emperor Penguins going out to sea to hunt for prey
Emperor penguins drink water in whatever form they can obtain it. If freshwater is available, they will readily drink this and may even eat snow as a source of hydration.
The main water source available is salty seawater, and Emperor penguins rely on an adaptation to filter out the salt before it is absorbed into their bloodstream.
The species has what is known as a supraorbital gland, located above its eyes, where excess salt is mixed with moisture, and then drips out through a nasal cavity at the top of the beak.
Emperor penguins are classed as carnivores, as they hunt and feed on sealife and do not eat plants or other matter.
Emperor Penguins are a carnivorous species
An Emperor penguin’s food intake depends on the time of year, with summer feeding being far more regular than during the winter, when eggs are being incubated. In summer, Emperor penguins can eat more than 1 kg (2 lb) in a day, in order to build up vital fat and energy stores that they will then rely on in winter months.
During the breeding season, male penguins remain at their land colonies incubating their eggs. For up to four months while the female is hunting at sea, the male has no access to food as he is unable to leave the egg unattended. During this period, on average 115 days, males lose up to 50 percent of their body weight.
If the female does not return after the chick has hatched, the male becomes in serious danger of starving, and will as a last resort abandon a newly hatched chick to return to the ocean to hunt.
Penguins will hunt both in the day and at night, beginning at dawn. They may take short naps in the afternoon, before returning to the Antarctic waters to resume hunting later in the day.
Emperor penguins dive to depths of around 50 m (160 ft) and can pursue prey for up to 20 minutes underwater before needing to resurface to breathe. They hunt by sight, chasing fish and krill, which they may then catch on the underside of sea ice or by swimming through a large swarm of krill.
To catch squid, Emperor penguins hunt at greater depths, and can grip hold of their prey of up to 48 cm in length with their curved bills. Hunting at such depths allows Emperor penguins to target food resources that other birds cannot access.
Emperor Penguins can spend an impressive 20 minutes underwater hunting for prey
Fish, squid and crustaceans are caught by Emperor penguins as they swim, and grasped firmly by the bird’s powerful bill and spiny tongue. Prey is swallowed whole.
Male emperor penguins spend much of the winter incubating their eggs on land. During this time, they fast and are unable to eat or drink, as this would mean leaving the unhatched eggs unattended.
Females spend winters at sea, and with frozen expanses of ice covering areas of the ocean’s surface, they depend on catching whatever they can from the icy waters. Antarctic krill may be caught by chasing them to the underside of the ice.
In summer, fish stocks are at their most plentiful and male and female Emperor penguins hunt in open water, eating more than 1 to 1.5 kg (2 to 3 lb) of fish each day to prepare themselves for the winter months ahead when feeding opportunities are less readily available (or nonexistent in the case of incubating males).
Incubation of Emperor penguin eggs is solely by the male, with the female returning from hunting in the ocean coinciding with the time of hatching. If a chick hatches before the female arrives, it will be fed by a substance known as ‘crop milk’, secreted in the male penguin’s esophagus.
Usually, the female Emperor penguin arrives at the breeding colony either just before or shortly after the chick hatches, and is able to feed their young on regurgitated fish and krill.
The pair then switch roles, with the male heading out to sea, and returning shortly afterwards with additional supplies of fish which is then fed to its mate and their young.
Emperor Penguin feeding its hungry chick, Snow Hill Emperor Penguin Colony, Antarctica
Emperor penguins hunt squid found in ocean waters around 500 m (1640 ft) beneath the surface. Four species of squid form a regular part of their diet: Psychroteuthis glacialis, Kondakovia longimana, Gonatus antarcticus and Alluroteuthis antarcticus. Squid species with a mantle length greater than 48 cm (18.9 in) are not hunted.
Penguins have a notoriously fast metabolism and are reported to poop around every 20 minutes.
Emperor penguins do not have teeth; instead their tongue and roof of their mouth are covered in sharp spines which enable them to keep a firm hold of the fish they catch. The edges of their bills are also razor sharp and curved, which allows them to grip prey with it standing little chance of escaping.
Emperor Penguins at Antarctica Mawson Station
Antarctic krill form part of the diet of Emperor penguins, but are not as important as fish and squid.
Plankton and other microscopic fish may form part of an Emperor penguin’s diet. Antarctic krill are considered plankton and these are of some importance, alongside fish and squid.
Emperor penguins survive on a fish-based diet and do not eat their young. If an egg fails or a baby penguin starves to death, the parents will abandon the site but will not eat either the egg or the dead chick.
Emperor penguins are carnivores, and they feed exclusively on fish, squid and crustaceans. Plant life, including algae and phytoplankton, forms no part of their diet.
Emperor penguins do not eat birds, only fish and other aquatic animals. They are unable to hunt on land and do not prey on seabirds.
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