Often associated with Antarctica and the Arctic regions (though their range extends beyond that), the penguin is a bird that attracts the attention of both young and old.
Many stuffed toys leaving the shelves are penguin figures, and documentaries about penguins are in high demand.
Our focus on this popular flightless bird will be its diet and a question asked by many enthusiasts: What do penguins eat in the wild?
Penguins are carnivores, though they appear otherwise judging from looks. Their preferred diet is primarily fish, as it would be hard for them to have a wide diet.
Read on to learn more about this animal and its place in the food chain.
Penguin Diet: What Do Penguins Eat?
There are 18 species of penguins, all of which are carnivores.1 It would be hard for them to feed on anything other than meat as their taste buds can only taste salty and sour flavors.2
Any other meal besides meat would be undesirable.
Their primary prey is the fish which they often swallow whole. Other than fish, they also feed on crustaceans and cephalopods, but that’s about it for penguins.
There isn’t much difference in the dietary choices of the species, despite their changing locations.
The fish species they eat may differ, but the preference remains the same.
Penguins generally opt for live prey, but those in captivity are sometimes fed frozen fish both to reduce cost and for consistency in the diet. They don’t seem to mind.
What Eats Penguins?
Penguins are carnivores, but they aren’t apex predators by a long shot.
They are preyed upon by larger carnivores, and as semi-aquatic animals, their enemies appear both on land and at sea.
Penguins have the full-time job of avoiding predators on both sides.
On land, the predators are foxes, wild cats, dogs, and snakes. Aquatic predation comes from seals, killer whales, sea lions, and sharks.
Land predators go more after eggs and young chicks. The adult penguin falls victim to aquatic predators as they are bigger and harder to escape.
By far, the biggest enemy of penguins remains humans, though not from hunting.3
Climate change is engendered by human activities, and that causes habitat loss.
Pollution and fishing also lead to the loss of resources for these flightless birds.
Dive Deeper: Animals Affected By Climate Change
How Do Penguins Get Food?
Because their preferred prey is underwater, penguins hunt more in water than on land.
When they do hunt on land, they still pick off fish from cracks in the ice. Either way, their main source of food remains the water.
Penguins can’t breathe underwater, but they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes while searching for prey.
Many species are known to dive deep, with the emperor penguin going as far as 1800 feet.
Some also travel looking for prey. Then some prefer swimming in shallow waters to find prey.
How Do Penguins Eat?
As hinted above, penguins swallow their fish whole as they don’t have teeth to chew.
We also mentioned their limited taste buds, which means they don’t need to taste the fish before swallowing it.
Its tongue is spiny, and the jaws powerful, preventing the fish from slipping off.
Penguins can store undigested food in their digestive system that comes in handy during seasons like molting and breeding when they undergo fasting.
The latter can last for more than 100 years.4 The digestive system also comes with many helpful microorganisms that help in digestion.
How Much Do Penguins Eat?
Due to their ‘fast or feast’ method, penguins eat a lot when they have the opportunity to find prey.
They consume over fifty pounds daily, storing the residue for future purposes.
During fasting seasons, they hardly eat, though occasionally, they get a treat.
The climate also determines how much a penguin will eat.
During the summer, there’s more food, so the penguin can feed daily.
It doesn’t need to store up food, so 2 pounds is generally enough for it. Only during winter it begins to feast.
What Do Baby Penguins Eat?
The baby penguin (known as the chick or nestling) doesn’t start as independent, including its feeding.
Both the male and female parents partake in feeding the infants, and while there are different methods they employ to do this, all involve regurgitating the meal for the chick to feed on.
The first method is to directly regurgitate the meal without having to swallow it first.
The next method involves swallowing the food so they can store it in their digestive system, much like they do when preparing for molting.
Then there’s the last method which involves turning the food into a sort of “milk.” It all depends on the species.
Whatever method is used, the idea remains that the parent gets the fish and stores it for the children to eat.
The parent feeds the child directly, using its beak as a spoon.
List of Penguin’s Food
Do penguins eat plants?
Penguins are core carnivores and are not known to eat plants, especially with their limited taste buds. Their bodies are not also adapted to a herbivorous diet. They eat solely meat.
What do penguins drink?
Because they hunt in seawater, one would assume they drink a lot of salty liquid. However, that has not been the case. They possess a suborbital gland that helps filter the salt out.
This water isn’t meant to curb thirst, however. They have snow and meltwater to help with that.
Penguins are pure carnivores with no room for plants, unlike many other meat-eating animals that may sometimes feed on fruits.
Though their diet is limited to fish and crustaceans, they’ve adapted many means to survive.
References & Notes
- List of Penguin Species. BirdLife International.
- Why Penguins Can Only Taste Salty and Sour Foods. AMNH.
- All About Penguins – Conservation & Research. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.
- Most male Emperor penguins fast for 115 days. Popular Science.