What Do Penguins Eat?

Penguins are flightless birds that live throughout the Southern Hemisphere. They live in various habitats and climates that extend from Antarctica to the Equator. Penguins have densely packed feathers that help to protect their bodies from the dangerously cold parts of their range. 

All penguins have fusiform bodies, which makes them excellent swimmers, and counter-shading, which helps camouflage them from predators. While hunting for prey, some penguins can dive hundreds of meters under the surface to find food. 

Penguins eat various marine animals, including krill, squid, fish, octopi, crabs, and lobsters. The prey they prefer depends on the size of the penguin species, ranging from the 14-inch tall (35-cm) little penguin to the 3.6-foot tall (110-cm) emperor penguin. 

They are fast swimmers and efficient hunters, with some species able to reach speeds of more than 15 miles per hour. They can increase their swimming speed by porpoising in and out of the water at the surface, which helps them escape predation. 

What Do Penguins Eat in Antarctica?

Antarctica is an inhospitable landscape of ice and rock, but penguins have colonized many parts of the continent, even during the harshest winters. Antarctic penguins readily eat many different marine animals, depending on the size of the penguin and the availability of each prey species.

The smallest Antarctic penguins primarily eat krill, crustaceans, and small fish, depending on what is seasonally available. These species include the Rockhopper, which is the smallest, Macaroni, Adelie, Chinstrap, and Magellanic penguins.

The largest penguins in Antarctica, the Emperor, King, and Gentoo penguins, eat crustaceans, fish, and squid, sometimes diving hundreds of meters underwater to find food. The largest of these, the Emperor Penguin, has the record for deepest dive at 1,755 feet (535 meters).

The fish species in Antarctica that penguins eat include sardines, anchovies, silverfish, cod, and mackerel, depending on the season. Penguins use their spiny tongues, strong beaks, and jaws to grasp their prey and swallow it whole while they swim. 

what do penguins eat
Emperor penguin feeding her chick at Atka Bay, Weddell Sea, Antarctica

How Often Do Penguins Eat?

Throughout the year, penguins eat more or less often, depending on each species and their seasonal activities. Generally, outside of the breeding season, all penguins eat each day, sometimes multiple times per day, unless prey species are unavailable

During the penguin breeding season, some researchers found that male Emperor Penguins go through an extended fast and may not eat for up to 115 days; although, more recent research has challenged this with evidence that they may not fast that long.

King Penguins and Royal Penguins also fast during the breeding season, although the King Penguin males’ fasting period only lasts up to two months, and the Royal Penguin males’ fasting lasts up to one month before the female penguins return to help with incubating their eggs. 

How Much Do Penguins Eat?

The eating habits of penguins vary throughout the year, depending on seasonal fluctuations in prey availability and prey species assemblages,  the timing of migration, the species of penguin, and when each penguin species’ breeding season occurs.

Penguin males that fast during their breeding season must consume large quantities of food before they incubate the egg. Emperor Penguins normally eat 4 to 11 pounds (2 to 5 kg) of food daily, but before fasting, they consume 13 pounds (6 kg) daily.

While few studies focus on how much individual penguins eat, one study estimated that the 25,500 Adelie Penguins in a colony on an Antarctic Peninsula consumed 27.5 metric tons of krill per day. They believe that these penguins, collectively, eat far more krill than any fin whales.

What Is a Penguin’s Favorite Food?

The habitats and oceanic regions in the Southern Hemisphere, where penguins live, change seasonally, which leads to temporal changes in prey availability. Some penguin species have favorite foods that reflect this variability, while others do not. 

Antarctic Silverfish comprise more than 70% of the Emperor Penguin’s diet, no matter where the penguins live or breed. Emperor Penguins can forage farther and deeper below the ocean’s surface than any other species in search of their favorite fish. 

Adelie Penguins prefer eating krill and some bony fish; however, they switch to eating other foods when their preferred items are not locally abundant, including jellyfish, comb jellies, bluebottles, copepods, and amphipods. 

All penguins generally prefer to eat krill and bony fish in varying proportions based on the size of each penguin species. Some penguins tolerate the seasonal variations, while others migrate to follow their preferred food or range farther to find it.

What Do Baby Penguins Eat?

Penguin breeding is highly variable based on each species and the location of their breeding grounds. Some penguins lay one egg, some lay two, and others lay three. Some breeding seasons can last two months, while others last more than a year. 

Baby penguins raised in a nest or burrow are cared for exclusively by their parents. Penguin species that breed in colonies form crèches, or groups, where unrelated adults watch large numbers of babies while all the parents leave to forage for food.

Despite these differences, baby penguins eat what their parents eat, including fish, krill, and squid. Each parent takes turns hunting for food, then returns to their nest, burrow, or colony to regurgitate food for their young until they are old enough to hunt for themselves.

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