Penguins eat a variety of different foods – but all are predators. From krill to crustaceans, and squids to sprats – there is something for everyone.
Penguin Facts: What Do Penguins Eat?
All penguins hunt for food in the oceans – they don’t hunt anything found on land. Depending on where they live and their speed and size – they can eat anything from microscopic krill to huge squid and large fish. As they live around the coasts of three major continents – their choice of menu is huge.
They all eat slightly different things too – so that they can live in the same habitats without competing for foods. Yes, there is a small amount of overlap – but generally several species can live and/or feed in the same area and all still come home with full tummies. Main food groups include:
Krill – tiny crustaceans (usually less than 2cm as adults) that live in huge numbers in the colder oceans
Crustaceans – all aquatic arthropods (3 body segments) including shrimps, prawns as well as larval crabs and lobsters
Cephalopods – (meaning head-feet) this group includes, squid, octopus, cuttlefish and nautilus
Fish – anything from anchovies, pilchards and sprats, to goby, mullet and lanternfish
Which Penguins Eat Which Food?
Generally you can clump the main 18 penguin species into 4 main diet groups based on what they don’t eat or live near rather than based on their size. The largest (emperor) and the smallest (little) penguins eat the same things after all.
Group 1: Krill, crustaceans, cephalopods and fish:
Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Erect-Crested, Northern Rockhopper and Little penguins have the widest range of staple foods. This most-southerly group lives across the entire southern hemisphere including Antarctica itself – so eat many different species between them. Krill however is the main food source throughout the year – and some penguins can eat as much as 13 pounds of it a day.
The Royal penguin also eats krill and cephalopods – but fish aren’t often on their main menu. They are only found in one location, south of New Zealand and used to be harvested in huge numbers for their oil – but they have recovered well.
Group 2: Crustaceans, cephalopods and fish:
Gentoo (the fastest penguins), Magellanic, Southern Rockhopper and Humboldt penguins are all focussed around the southern tip of South America and the islands surrounding it. Sharing a wide range of habitats for their feeding, they focus slightly more on fish.
Less well-known and quite rare, Snares and Fiordland penguins feed in the seas around New Zealand. They are only found in this restricted location – and also focus less on krill.
Group 3: Mainly fish and cephalopods:
The further north penguins are found – the more they focus on crustaceans and fish (as krill is found mainly in just very cold waters).
King penguins are one of the largest penguins however – will still take krill if they find it – especially in breeding season. Macaroni and Yellow-Eyed penguins are the same – with all three specialising in lanternfish and other bottom-dwellers as their main go-to fish.
Group 4: Mainly just fish:
African penguins off the coast of Namibia, and Galapagos penguins – the most northerly species – absolutely love fish. They go out hunting all day for schooling fish and return to land each night.
Due to the rich ocean currents where these two species live – they don’t have to travel far to feed – and with the Galapagos penguin being the second-smallest penguin species – that is great news.
Do Penguins Have Teeth?
Like all birds – penguins do not have teeth. Instead they have a ridged tongue and grooved beak edges to hold onto wet foods. This efficient and simple system prevents food from slipping out of the mouth – and helps guide it down their throat. Most foods are swallowed whole, so there is no need for chewing with penguins.
Most penguins swim at around 6-22 mph in the water, so teeth would in fact be a hindrance to this fast fishing. Better to have a barrier-free opening as you swim fast through the ocean? Penguins feed by sight – so they are very precise with feeding. Opening their mouth reduces their swimming efficiency – so they need to be focussed.
What Do Penguins Drink?
Penguins will drink from water sources when on land – as well as eating snow for the same purpose. Often seen gulping fresh water from streams and pools, penguins do well to consume fresh water instead of salt water.
Penguins obviously ingest a lot of sea water – and therefore salt – from their hunting: but they are prepared. Like other seabirds, they have a special gland in their nose to excrete out excess salt from their body. This amazing ability keeps them safe from the toxicity of salt ingestion (the reason humans can’t drink too much sea water ourselves).