What Do Penguins Eat? (Complete Guide)

There are 18 species of penguins, and whilst they're primarily associated with the cold southerly regions of Antarctica and the sub-antarctic, penguins are found as far north as the Galapagos Islands and South Africa.

Penguins are amongst the most distinctive birds on the planet, and all species have much in common with each other, so what do penguins eat?

All penguins are carnivorous, and their diets consist almost solely of fish, squids, plankton, krill, jellyfish and octopus. Broadly speaking, larger penguins such as the Emperor and King penguins consume larger fish, squids and octopuses, whereas smaller penguins such as Chinstraps and Adelies consume mainly krill and smaller fishes.

Emperor Penguin diving for food

Emperor Penguin diving for food

Penguins are primarily piscivorous, meaning they eat mainly fish and sea creatures. Most, if not all, penguins live in or near seawater which means their diets do have a lot in common. Where different species of penguins live in the same place, they tend to feed on different foods at different times to avoid food competition, but they still all feed on broadly the same sea creatures.

Swimming is one of penguins strong suits, and they use it to their advantage when hunting in the sea. Most species of penguins can dive to depths exceeding 100m and can stay underwater for longer than 10-minutes, longer than any bird.

Read on to discover more interesting facts about the diets and feeding habits of different species of penguins!

What do penguins in the wild?

Penguins are carnivorous birds that feed almost solely on krill and other smaller crustaceans, fish, jellyfish and cephalopods like squid, octopuses and cuttlefish.

Larger penguins such as Emperor penguins consume larger types of seafood, like octopuses, squid and large fish, whereas smaller penguins like Chinstraps, Adelies and Rockhoppers eat smaller types of seafood, like small fish and krill.

Chinstrap penguin looking for fish in the water

Chinstrap penguin looking for fish in the water

Penguins often have ravenous appetites - they require a high-fat diet in order to maintain a high body fat percentage and keep their thick feathers healthy. An adult Emperor penguin can consume more than 5kg of food in one day.

In fact, penguins eat so much that the dietary needs of breeding populations have a huge impact on local biodiversity. In any one year, the breeding population of Adélie penguins consumes as much as 1,500,000,000 kg of krill, 115,000,000 kg of fish and 3,500,000 kg of squids!

Krill and Crustaceans

Krill are small crustaceans that form the backbone of many sea-dwelling animals’ diets including penguins, fish and whales. Almost all penguins consume krill by swimming through the water and swallowing them whole.

Penguins also eat larger crustaceans, such as shrimp, as well as young soft crabs and lobsters that are yet to develop tough exoskeletons.

Krill make up a large proportion of penguins diets

Krill make up a large proportion of penguins diets

Fish

Some species of penguins eat more fish than others. Emperor penguin diets consist of around 90% fish whereas Chinstrap penguin diets generally consist of less than 10% fish. Penguins consume a huge range of fish, most commonly sardines, silverfish, sprats, cod, mullets, anchovies, opal fish, lantern fish and pilchards.

Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopuses

Squid, cuttlefish and octopuses are cephalopods. Glacial squids are some of the most common prey and many penguins consume them seasonally. Larger penguins such as Emperors and King consume sizable squids including the Giant warty squid.

A handful of species of penguins also consume octopuses, including Crested, Gentoo, Rockhopper, King, Emperor and Royal penguins.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish are around 90%+ water and are not exactly appetising. Very few sea animals consume jellyfish, but some penguins have become quite good at catching and eating them safely.

Recent studies into penguin diets found that Adélie penguins, Yellow-eyed penguins, Magellanic penguins and Little penguins hunt jellyfish, usually when other food is scarce.

Adelie Penguins diving in search of food, Hope Bay, Antarctica

Adelie Penguins diving in search of food, Hope Bay, Antarctica

What do penguins eat in captivity?

Penguins in captivity are fed a diet akin to what they would choose in the wild. This primarily includes fish, as well as shrimp and krill. The main difference is that, in contrast to catching and eating live animals, penguins in captivity will likely be fed dead or frozen fish.

What types of fish do penguins eat?

Most penguins consume a variety of cold-water fish, namely sardines, silverfish, sprats, cod, mullets, anchovies, opal fish, herring, capelin, lantern fish and pilchards.

Humboldt Penguin with fish in its beak

Humboldt Penguin with fish in its beak

What do penguins eat in the summer?

In summer, squid populations tend to increase dramatically, and penguins look to take advantage of their increased numbers. Penguins are often observed feeding on vast quantities of squids when they’re at their most abundant through summer, as well as seasonally abundant fish like the Atlantic silverfish.

The abundant summer water triggers a feeding frenzy, not just for penguins but for all manner of sea-dwelling animals. At the peak, penguins can more than double their standard daily food consumption. Some Emperor penguins have been recorded consuming as much as 8kg of food in one way, which is more than a quarter of their body weight!

How do penguins find food?

Penguins hunt fish, krill and other prey from the water. Krill often collect on the underside of ice which makes them an easy target, but other prey requires specialised techniques to catch.

Different species of penguins have different feeding strategies, hunting techniques and dietary niches, but they all have two things in common: excellent eyesight and tremendous swimming ability.

Penguin eyesight has adapted to make them at least as good at seeing underwater as they can on dry land. They’re also sensitive to violet, blue and green wavelengths, as well as ultraviolet light. This helps penguins hunt in low-light conditions, though at depths of some 50m or so, penguins are more or less hunting in the dark.

Scientists think that penguin eyes are particularly sensitive to the bioluminescent light released by some species of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods, or that they’re excellent at sensing the subtle light reflections that bounce off the bodies of their prey.

Here are some examples of how different species of penguins find food:

Emperor penguins

Emperor penguins are deep-sea diving specialists and have been recorded diving to an insane depth of 457 metres (1,500 feet), holding their breath for around 30-minutes in the process. This allows them to catch a vast array of fish and cephalopods that dwell deep beneath the ocean floor. Emperor penguins are fast and agile swimmers and will intercept prey as they swim, swallowing them whole.

Emperor Penguin diving below the ice, in search of food

Emperor Penguin diving below the ice, in search of food

Gentoo penguins

With a top swimming speed of around 22mph, Gentoo penguins are exceptionally fast and agile and will feed opportunistically. They feed both on their own and with their flocks or ‘clans’ and have been observed heading fish towards the shore in cooperative feeding events.

Gentoo Penguin hunting for fish

Gentoo Penguin hunting for fish

Galapagos penguins

Galapagos penguins are excellent cooperative feeders and employ a technique whereby some penguins dive beneath a school of fish and swim upwards, forcing the fish towards the surface, leaving other penguins (and also some lucky seabirds) to swoop in and make an easy catch.

Galapagos Penguin

Galapagos Penguin

Little penguins

Little penguins have been observed staying in the water for many hours at a time and rarely dive particularly deep beneath the water, instead preferring to remain within 5m or so of the surface.

Little Blue Penguin

Little Blue Penguin

How do penguins eat?

Like most birds, penguins simply swallow their prey whole. Despite having no teeth, penguins have spiny tongues and mouths, which enable them to strain food from the seawater as they swim. These spikes, named papillae, also help penguins grip slippery prey.

All penguins typically swallow their prey at sea rather than returning to land to eat, unless they are bringing food inland to their chicks. Penguin stomachs can store food without digesting it, enabling them to save their catch for later in what is essentially an internal refrigeration system. This also allows them to store food to regurgitate to their chicks.

Penguin eating a large fish, well swallowing it whole

Penguin eating a large fish, well swallowing it whole

How often do penguins eat?

When food is readily available and abundant, penguins spend much of their day foraging for food. Little penguins can spend all day in the water hunting, and Yellow-eyed penguins have been recorded making as many as 200 dives per day!

Penguins fast when food becomes scarce, or during the breeding season where penguins are unable to hunt all day. Emperor penguins may fast for an incredible 115 days whilst they incubate a single egg, and Royal penguins often fast for 1.5 to 2 months per year.

What do baby penguins eat?

Baby penguins are fed partially or totally regurgitated fish, krill, cephalopods or whatever else the adult penguin has been eating.

Penguins have an internal refrigeration system that allows them to store food without it digesting fully, but some species of penguins will totally digest the food before regurgitating it fully as 'penguin milk''.

Penguins store 'penguin milk' in a stomach pouch which is sometimes called a crop (though is anatomically different from a crop), and it serves a similar purpose to mammalian milk, providing a nutritious, easy-to-digest and ultra-high-fat meal to developing chicks.

Emperor Penguin feeding their chick

Emperor Penguin feeding their chick

What do penguins drink?

To keep hydrated, penguins drink salt water. Penguins drink quantities of saltwater that would kill land-dwelling animals, including humans, but have developed a means to filter the salt from their blood which they then excrete through their bills by ‘sneezing’.

The gland that enables penguins to filter salt water is called the supraorbital gland and is present in many other seabirds like gulls. It is located near the eye.

What are penguins’ predators?

Penguins have a variety of predators that vary with the region and species of penguin. Emperor penguins have very few if any predators, but smaller species that live north of Antarctica face threats from seals, Orca, sea lions, foxes and sharks.

Chicks and eggs may be predated by south polar skua and giant petrels.

King Penguins heading out to sea to find food

King Penguins heading out to sea to find food

Penguin Diet FAQs

What do Emperor penguins eat?

Emperor penguins primarily consume fish. Some estimates suggest that the majority of their diet consists of fish from the Nototheniidae family, which includes various cod.

They also consume krill in abundance and squids, cuttlefish and other cephalopods including octopuses. An Emperor penguin typically eats around 3kg of food a day, but this can extend all the way up to 8kg when food is at its most abundant - well over a quarter of the penguins average weight!

Can penguins eat fruit?

Penguins could eat fruit, but they’d never choose to. Penguins have been eating sea creatures like fish and crustaceans for much of their evolution and scientists believe they’ve all but lost their sense of taste. Whilst most vertebrates have 4 or 5 senses of taste; sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, penguins can only taste salt and sour.

African Penguin feeding chick

African Penguin feeding chick

Do penguins eat meat?

Penguins only eat meat - they are carnivores. Penguin diets consist of meat and meat alone, including fish, crustaceans and cephalopods such as squid.

Do penguins eat seaweed?

There is no evidence to suggest that penguins eat seaweed or any other sea vegetation. They are carnivores and consume exclusively meat in the form of fish, shellfish and other sea creatures.

Do penguins have teeth?

Penguins, like other birds, do not have teeth. However, they do have spiky protrusions that line their beak which help them filter and strain food from the water. Penguins also have tongues that they use to pull food from their bills into their stomachs. Like other birds, they swallow food whole and do not chew.

Close up shot of inside a penguins mouth

Close up shot of inside a penguins mouth

Do penguins drink milk?

Actually, penguin chicks do drink a type of milk called ‘penguin milk’. Penguin milk is formed and secreted from a second stomach pouch which is sometimes called a crop (though differs from other bird crops anatomically). Like mammalian milk, penguin milk is a soup of concentrated nutrients and fats which is fed to baby penguins to accelerate their development.

Do penguins eat squid?

Many penguins eat squid, particularly in the summer months when squid are at their most abundant. Glacial squids are one of the most popular choices but Emperor penguins have been recorded hunting larger squids like the Giant warty squid.

Do penguins eat seals?

Despite being carnivores, seals are much too large and powerful for penguins to hunt. Seals and sea lions are much more likely to hunt penguins.

Can penguins eat rice?

There is no reason why a penguin would eat rice, nor should they be fed rice.

Expert Q + A

Ask a question

Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.

Include your email address to get a message when this question is answered.

You may also like

Get the good stuff

Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox