There's more to discover. Continue scrolling for the full article below.
Found in polar climates, penguins spend a large chunk of their lives at sea, hunting for fish and other marine life in the icy Southern Hemisphere waters. But does anything apart from seafood feature in their diet? Read on to find out!
Penguins are well adapted to life in frozen landscapes, swimming through subzero-temperature waters in pursuit of fish, squid and krill. Fluctuating fish stocks bring challenges to penguins’ survival, with food-seeking missions sometimes taking them on treks of up to 60 miles a day or month-long hunts over 1000 miles from their colonies.
For penguins, survival has never been tougher than in the modern world, where rising sea temperatures impact the availability of the marine life they rely on and dramatically change their habitats, with loss of ice cover leading to food shortages and breeding failures.
As flightless birds that hunt by swimming in the icy Antarctic waters, it’s not surprising that fish and other marine life are the sole diet of penguins. As penguins are unable to fly to different locations in search of food, and the barren landscapes of their Antarctic colonies are rather limited in alternative food options even if their tastes were broader than a simply fish-based diet.
Primarily, all penguins feed on fish, crustaceans (particularly krill) and squid. However, the smaller species of penguins found in the Antarctic and subantarctic regions tend to consume mainly krill and squid.
The penguin species living farther north prey on marine fish and squid, while Galȧpagos penguins, the only penguin species living north of the Equator, feed on cold-water fish, including sardines and anchovies.
All 18 species of penguins are carnivorous and plant matter does not feature in their diet at all. While fish is the key element of the diets of all penguin species, squid and crustaceans are also eaten, particularly krill. Each penguin species uses different methods to find, track and capture their prey, hunting in a variety of water depths and distances from the shoreline. These variations help to reduce competition between penguin species.
Rockerhopper Penguins jumping into the sea to hunt for food. Primarily, all penguins feed on fish, crustaceans (particularly krill) and squid
Not all penguins have the same tastes and preferences when it comes to diet and food capture. Depending on their geographical range and hunting zones, different species thrive on a diverse range of marine life. Read on to learn more about which penguins are krill connoisseurs and which savor squid!
The diet of Emperor Penguins mainly consists of fish, primarily Antarctic silverfish, lanternfish and icefish. Some small crustaceans and krill are also eaten. Emperor Penguins catch their prey by diving deep into the ocean water and swimming in pursuit of their prey, which they capture with great skill and accuracy.
Adélie and Chinstrap Penguins are both shallow-diving species that forage offshore. Their diet comprises mainly krill – and lots of it.
Adélie Penguins have been observed to devour 25 g of small krill in a minute, eating up to 800 g each day, the equivalent of around 16 percent of their body weight. They are one of the most effective penguin species at cooperative hunting, forming groups to swim through water together to snatch the prey as they pass.
Chinstrap Penguins also feed almost exclusively on Antarctic krill, foraging for larger krill, as well as some fish and squid. They hunt individually, swimming swiftly and efficiently with their streamlined bodies, and catch their prey in their bills.
Using their torpedo-shaped bodies and strong flippers, Gentoo Penguins propel themselves underwater in pursuit of their preferred prey: squid. Fish, krill and some small crustaceans are also eaten. They have barbs on the edge of their tongue and the roof of the mouth that allow them to grip onto what they have caught as they swim to shore to eat it.
One of the deepest-diving of the penguin species, King Penguins swim to depths of over 100 m (330 ft) in pursuit of prey. Their diet is varied, with fish forming around 80 percent of their food, and lanternfish are the preferred catch, particularly during the breeding season. In winter, squid forms a more important share of their diet.
Unlike other penguin species, and due to its habitat, the Galápagos Penguin enjoys a diet rich in small schooling fish. Native to the Galápagos Islands, these small penguins forage in tropical waters, teeming with cold water fish species, including anchovies, sardines and mullet, which thrive in the waters cooled by the Humboldt Current.
Different penguin species have adapted various hunting methods to catch their prey, according to the marine creatures they are pursuing and whether they are hunting alone or with a larger group. Keep reading to discover the clever underwater tactics different penguins use to successfully capture their prey.
Several penguins dive to depths of up to 500 m (1640 ft) in search of prey in open ocean waters. Emperor and Gentoo Penguins are particularly skilled at deep diving pursuit, chasing fish and squid at speeds of around 32 km/h (20 mph), moving their streamlined bodies through the water with ease before snatching the prey with their beak.
In some penguin species, particularly African Penguins and Little Penguins, group hunting is used as an effective foraging strategy, increasing the chances of catching more prey while expending less energy.
Synchronized movements by multiple penguins working together had the effect of herding fish into closely packed ‘balls’ near the water’s surface, resulting in a catch rate of 2.7 times greater than when hunting solo.
A penguin hunting technique showcased in many wildlife documentaries is ‘porpoising’. Seen near the water surface, and practiced by both groups and individual penguins, porpoising involves torpedoing through the water and then briefly leaping into the air before returning to the water to pluck out their prey.
This process allows penguins, particularly Gentoos, to catch their breath and scan the ocean surface to be able to accurately pinpoint the fish and krill swimming below.
Shallow-water feeding is common in smaller penguin species, such as the Adélie and Chinstrap, as their main prey, krill, is found near the ocean surface. Shallow dives, including foraging in rocky reefs and kelp beds have the benefit of abundant prey and do not require as much energy as swimming down to deeper depths.
A Humboldt Penguin fishing. Several penguins dive to depths of up to 500 m (1640 ft) in search of prey in open ocean waters
At different times in their life, penguins’ dietary needs change according to whether they are molting, incubating eggs or feeding young. Keep reading to learn how they adapt their food intake to match the demands of each life stage.
When they hatch, penguin chicks are covered in a fuzzy down that is not fully waterproof, meaning they are not automatically able to swim or enter the water to hunt for themselves. Instead, they rely on their parents to feed them until they can independently hunt and catch their own prey.
In the initial weeks after hatching, a substance known as ‘crop milk’ is essential to the survival of young penguin chicks. Crop milk is a fatty, protein-rich substance created in a pouch in the throat of both the male and female parents, which provides growing chicks with essential nutrients at vital stages of development.
Regurgitation is also used to feed chicks with partially digested fish and krill, caught by one parent at sea and brought back to the colony, where it is then coughed up directly into the young bird’s bill.
Depending on the species, penguin chicks are able to swim and hunt independently for between 7 and 9 weeks for Adélie Penguins and up to 13 months for young Emperor Penguins.
A Gentoo Penguin feeding its young. Penguin chicks rely on their parents to feed them until they can independently hunt and catch their own prey
While molting, penguins’ feather coverage is not waterproof and they are stranded on land until their new plumage has developed fully, a process that takes up to a month.
Not being able to swim also means that they are unable to eat during this time, so in preparation for this period of fasting, they consume up to three times their usual diet and gain three times their normal body weight.
For penguins, the breeding season is unlike that of any other bird species. The male parent remains onshore during the incubation period, never leaving their single egg unattended, and managing to survive without food for between 2 and 4 months.
During this period, the female heads out to sea, hunting and gorging on marine fish and crustaceans, while the male loses almost half of his body weight without any source of food.
Females eventually return with the food they have stored internally, which is then used to feed their hungry mate and newly hatched chick.
A Yellow-eyed Penguin during molt. While molting, penguins’ feather coverage is not waterproof and they are stranded on land until their new plumage has developed fully, a process that takes up to a month
Penguins play a key role in marine ecosystems as well as in the Antarctic landscapes they breed on. Read on to find out what makes the presence of penguins so important to the habitats they live in.
In the Antarctic ecosystems, penguins are both predator and prey. Each role is equally valuable in maintaining a healthy balance of the ecosystem and the other species that live there. With the vast amounts of seafood they consume, penguins are a useful natural means of controlling fish populations.
Shoaling hunting methods used by some penguin species help to direct groups of fish into sizable groups swimming together near the ocean’s surface, which makes it easier for seabirds such as gannets to feed, therefore improving the chances of survival of other bird species, rather than just themselves.
But penguins are not at the top of the food chain, and their presence also ensures the survival of leopard seals, orcas and predatory seabirds, which target eggs and young penguin chicks as a quick and easy snack.
Penguins are considered an indicator species for the overall health of their Antarctic habitats. If penguins have sufficient access to the fish and krill stocks they need to survive, populations will remain stable.
However, if declines in penguin numbers are recorded, it’s generally an indication that there is an imbalance somewhere in their food chain.
This is observed increasingly in areas of the Southern Hemisphere where water temperature increases have led to a loss of sea ice, which has resulted in poor krill stocks and in turn, a drop in penguin numbers.
A group of King Penguins. Penguins are a useful natural means of controlling fish populations due to the vast amounts of seafood they consume
Changes to the availability of prey in Antarctic waters can be caused both directly and indirectly by human actions and can significantly influence the immediate and future survival of penguins. Read on to learn more about how overfishing and climate change are affecting penguin food sources.
Human demand for seafood both for their own consumption and for use as feed in aquaculture is putting pressure on the natural availability of the primary food sources of several penguin species.
Fish stocks are not finite, and with commercial fishing activities for anchovies and sardines for human consumption reaching record levels, certain penguin populations are beginning to show worrying declines, particularly in African penguins, which depend on sardines and other pelagic fish as a major part of their diet.
Krill stocks are also depleted by human fishing activities, as the crustaceans are used as feed in commercial fish farms, and are also a common ingredient in processed health-boosting supplements. With fewer krill available, penguins are forced to swim further to reach foraging grounds and compete with larger numbers to access enough prey to meet their needs.
In parts of the Antarctic, a decline of up to 60 percent in sea ice cover has been recorded over the last 30 years. Krill breed and feed beneath the sea ice, and the loss of this layer is leading to a decline in availability of these tiny crustaceans which are a staple element of the diet of many penguins, including the Chinstrap and Adélie.
The gradual warming of ocean temperatures also has a negative effect on the availability of prey, with penguins needing to travel further to reach foraging grounds with abundant marine life to feed on.
This is potentially life-threatening, particularly for incubating males during the breeding season. If their mates need to travel further in search of food, there is a risk that the males and any chicks that have already hatched may starve to death before they return.
An Adélie Penguin with its chick. Krill breed and feed beneath the sea ice, and the loss of this layer is leading to a decline in availability of these tiny crustaceans which are a staple element of the diet of many penguins
In environments where conditions are incredibly harsh, penguins are well adapted to not only survive but to thrive in their inhospitable surroundings. Specialized hunting and pursuit methods allow each species to target different prey.
This variety in diets among the different penguin species means that they may share fishing waters, while successfully sourcing, pursuing and capturing the fish, squid and crustaceans they each need to survive.
Marine ecosystems are under threat from commercial fishing activity and the phenomenon of climate change, with rising sea temperatures and loss of ice cover leading to a drop in fish stocks that penguins depend on for survival.
Marine conservation efforts have never been more vital to ensure that penguins continue to have access to the seafood they need without having to make exhausting and treacherous journeys to reach it. Controls and bans on fishing near some South African penguin colonies are already in place and further measures may be needed to protect wider foraging grounds and ensure global penguin populations remain stable.
A colony of African Penguins. Controls and bans on fishing near some South African penguin colonies are already in place and further measures may be needed to protect wider foraging grounds
Penguins’ diets consist exclusively of seafood, including fish, krill and other small crustaceans, squid, octopuses and other marine life. No other foods are eaten.
Penguins do not generally drink water, but stay hydrated by taking in salty seawater when catching their prey. They have a supraorbital gland above their eye that acts as a filter, preventing salt from entering the bloodstream. Penguins may also drink fresh water from meltwater pools and streams, or even eat ice.
As future hunting success is never guaranteed, penguins spend much of their waking hours chasing prey underwater or foraging for food a short distance offshore. Penguins eat several pounds of fish each day in order to maintain their fat reserves which serve as insulation when they are incubating.
During the breeding season, incubating male Emperor penguins can survive without food for around 120 days, losing up to 45 percent of their body weight while waiting for their mate to return from hunting at sea. For King penguins, the maximum fasting period is around 54 days before the need to eat becomes critical.
Research suggests that penguins have evolved with slightly different taste receptors to many other birds, and they genetically no longer have the ability to detect sweet, umami (meaty) or bitter flavors. Penguins are still able to taste salty or sour flavors, but as they swallow their prey whole, being able to distinguish between different tastes isn’t of major importance.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.