6 animals that eat penguins {And what makes penguins attractive prey}  

To keep the food chain running optimally, some animals need to feed on others, and some animals function as apex predators. Penguins are a part of this food chain as well, which involves other animals preying on them. Since penguins spend most of their lives in water, their predators will mainly be from the sea, as well as some land predators also hunting and eating them due to their time spent on land.

Most penguin predators will consist of sharks and marine animals, with the most dangerous predator being the leopard seal that attacks them from both outside and inside the ocean. Other main predators are orcas, other seals like fur seals and killer whales, while land predators include foxes, weasels, cats, rats, and dogs.

The prevalence of their predators in the water result in the penguins adopting an interesting strategy: before they begin eating, they push one of their own into water and wait to see whether a seal attacks the penguin. The predators that affect them will depend on the habitats the penguins reside in.

Penguin marine predators

  1. Orcas or killer whales

In their environments, killer whales are classified as apex predators, which means they occupy the highest position in their food chain. They feed on a variety of animals, including squid and fish like their cousins the toothed whales, as well as sea birds, seals, penguins, and even large whales. Interestingly, they are also the only predators of a great white shark.

Despite their whale moniker, they are actually part of the dolphin family, and they happen to be the largest species of the dolphins. They follow a highly social structure, with most of their time being in groups called ‘pods’ that have several family members. They also pass down their hunting strategies, and this means that their diets will depend on their hunting approach as well as the regions they live in.

Although their habitat is mostly coastal and in cold oceans, you can find them in many more habitats. They also hunt in these pods that consist of a maximum of 40 orcas, both transient and resident ones. Different pods can have different prey choices and a variety of hunting techniques, with transient pods preferring marine mammals and resident pods preferring fish.

  1. Leopard seals

Distinguishing themselves as the third largest seals on earth, leopard seals have slender and long bodies that can grow to a maximum of 10 feet in length and 1300 pounds in weight. Their heads also appear too large for their bodies, but this hides the fact that they have unusually large front flippers and streamlined bodies to help them cruise through water at high speeds.

Their diet preferences depend on their sizes; smaller seals will mostly feed on squid, krill, penguins, and fish, while the larger leopard seals will hunt other members of the seal family.

When hunting penguins, they will usually go for areas that have high concentrations of penguins, such as the edges of land or ice. They will then opt to patiently wait underwater until the penguins come to dive and swim in the water, and then suddenly thrash them several times, a similar tactic you would observe in dogs when they catch their prey.

In particular, a leopard seal has a unique jaw and tooth arrangement. Their significantly large canines work best when catching their prey, while their ability to strain krill is due to their back molars that lock together. This strategy is similar to certain whales sieving krill, especially baleen whales.

Additionally, their hunting for penguins is helped by their swimming speeds, which can reach a maximum of 37 kilometers per hour, or 22 miles per hour. This speed is also sufficiently fast for them to move on land.

Penguin aerial and land predators

  1. Giant petrels

Petrels and albatrosses have a close relation, as well as similar features. Petrels are distinguishable by their large bills that they use to tear the flesh of their prey, their dark brown color, and their large wingspan that measures up to 2 meters. Similar to their albatross cousins, they can glide elegantly over water surfaces, even seeming weightless at times, while also flying hundreds of miles in a single day. However, the case is different for them when they are on land, because they can be quite clumsy and resort to jumping movements when their wings are half open.

It is rare to find them hunting penguins in open seas, as they prefer closer shore points. This is particularly evident during the summer months, when young penguins are hatching from their eggs and moving out to sea; the petrels will be there as well. One hunting strategy is to segregate a chick, and then use all their weight to collide with it so that its neck breaks from the force. Alternatively, they can join with other petrels and isolate a chick, then pick at it repeatedly to weaken and kill it.

Since petrels prefer eating penguin chicks, they will usually fly close to penguins during the breeding season, and search for any abandoned or sick chicks, as well as adult penguins that have injuries or weaknesses. While adult penguins can fend off these birds, an injured one finds it difficult to do so, especially if another predator wounded it. When petrels spot this weakness, they will attack the penguin from its rear and bite it to enlarge the wounds, alongside picking out its intestines. They will do this until the penguin eventually dies.

  1. Skua or predatory gulls

Skuas have a similar appearance to brown seagulls, so they are also referred to as predatory gulls. They prefer eating penguin chicks and eggs, with occasional attacks on adult penguins that have suffered injuries or illnesses.

Since these birds are fearsome predators, penguins will resort to a more aggressive strategy to defend themselves when spotting them, including attacking them directly using stretched necks and open bills. The skuas will then respond by pairing up and attacking the penguins: one will attempt to distract a breeding penguin from its nest and lead it away, while the other steals the chick or egg from the nest.

  1. Sheathbills

These birds are different from the other aerial predators on this list, because they are more of opportunistic feeders that will consume anything from penguins to carrion. They are quite small as well, with their size being as large as a small chicken, and they also surprisingly have a fear of heights and water.

When consuming penguins, they will opt to eat an injured one, since it is too weak to mount a viable defense. They will also consume penguin eggs that are abandoned, although this is not as common because they will require quite some time to create holes in the egg and they will be chased away by the adult penguins.

  1. Gulls

Gulls are a constant feature in every penguin colony you can think of, because they are searching for penguin chicks and abandoned eggs. On the whole, they are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of many animals, eating anything from invertebrates, marine life, amphibians, reptiles, carrion, and even other birds like penguins. Their prey will depend on their circumstances and the prey available to them.

These birds also display great ingenuity with their prey-catching methods, with various ways involving hunting from the air, on land, or on water. In the case of penguins, they will employ a combination of plunge diving and hover dipping, especially when hunting young chicks that are not strong enough to defend themselves. 

Other predators

These include sharks and sea lions that will hunt penguins occasionally, as well as animals introduced by human settlements such as dogs, cats, snakes, and rats. Penguins are easy prey for many of these animals because they live in large groups, and their eggs are also quite nutritious to their enemies.

Additionally, ferrets and lizards can also attack them, especially during the breeding season when the adults are laying eggs.

The main penguin predators

Animal
Adult length in meters
Adult weight in pounds
Killer whale/Orca
Female: 5 to 7m

Male: 6 to 8m

Female: 3,000 to 5,900 lbs.

Male: 7200 to 11,900 lbs.

Leopard seal
3m
771 lbs.
Petrels
0.8 to 0.95m wingspan, and 0.7m in length
9.3 lbs.
Skuas
1.2m wingspan, and 0.5m in length
2.8 lbs.
Sheathbills
0.7m wingspan, and 0.4m in length
1.67 lbs.
Gulls
1.6m wingspan, and 0.7m length
3.3 lbs.

Human threats to penguin survival

Penguins may seem like untouchable birds due to their habitat isolations, large colonies that they use to breed and nest their young, and their stout yet streamlined bodies that move freely in water. However, their reality is different, since they face a variety of threats; it may be surprising to find that 13 penguin species are under threat, out of 18 species on earth. Humans are the biggest threat to their populations, and it is important to understand these threats they face to ensure their survival.

  1. Overfishing

Penguins are exclusively krill and fish eaters, and the fact that there is competition for these resources with humans means that they are in danger of losing their food source. Adding the problem of climate change, penguins are particularly vulnerable to starvation in this case because their nutrition fails to adequately satisfy their needs.

Additionally, chicks will also starve, because their parents will need to go further away to hunt for food; and they are vulnerable to being eaten by various predators because they are still defenseless.

The best way to manage the issue to closing any fishing grounds that are present in penguin breeding colonies. This will protect the population of schooling fish in these zones, ultimately reducing competition for these fish, and bring more penguins back to these areas because they will have more food. While this will improve their populations in the short term, they will also reduce the adult mortality rates from entanglement in fishing gear and starvation.

Another management strategy is improving the efficiency of fishing methods. Instead of using fishing nets that indiscriminately catch penguins alongside fish and other marine life, it is essential to educate and improve the fishing technologies in use to reduce penguin capture and deaths.

  1. Oil spillage

Among aquatic mammals, penguins are among the most vulnerable to oil spillage because of their foraging habits that occur near the water surface, the fact that they spend most of their lives in water, and their site fidelity. While not much information is available on how oil spillage affects the birds, there are extensive findings on how it affects the marine and aquatic food chain.

The oil spills are well-known for causing damage to penguin prey: krill, fish, and crustaceans. When penguins ingest these animals, they will ingest the oil, and this has the unfortunate long-term effect of reproductive defects.

While penguins have unique feather arrangements to aid in their protection from the cold temperatures of their habitats, the oil damages these feathers and increases the risk of the penguin dying from hypothermia. The penguins will attempt to remove the oil by preening excessively, but the oils are poisonous to them when ingested. Additionally, the oil damages coral reefs and rock ecosystems, affecting the nesting grounds of the penguins.

If the oil spills happen to areas close to you, it is important to involve yourself in clean-up activities and joining organizations that concern themselves with the activity. Reducing your carbon footprint also helps as well, since this will reduce the need for petroleum products and oil while reducing the chances of oil spillage occurring.

  1. Invasive species

Since penguins tend to group together in large colonies during the breeding and nesting seasons, they are general vulnerable to attacks from predators; even on an isolated island. When these areas have growing populations of invasive species, usually animals like ferrets, cats, rabbits, dogs, mice, and rats, they begin to hunt young and adult penguins alike or compete for food resources with them and the result is that the penguin population declines without recovery.

An example of this would be introducing red foxes to an island functioning as a penguin breeding ground in an attempt to control populations of certain animals like rabbits. Unfortunately, the unexpected result is that the foxes learn they can wait for the low tides to cross over to the penguin nesting grounds and eat the penguins.

Even in the case that these invasive animals do not eat penguin eggs or chicks, they will eventually damage these breeding grounds and make it difficult for the penguins to survive.

  1. Climate change

Climate change is responsible for many animal deaths and decreasing lifespans, such as in the Emperor Penguin species that inhabits most of Antarctica. Since it is also the largest penguin species, it is among the earliest to show the negative effects of the phenomenon.

Since climate change results in melting of ice caps, this reduces the potential food sources that the penguin depends heavily on. These food sources of krill, fish, and squid also depend on various microorganisms that grow on the ice. The ice caps also serve as a breeding ground, so their melting reduces the land spaces that the birds can use to nest.

  1. Poaching

Although penguins and their eggs are protected under international laws, this does not prevent illegal activities from happening; especially egg harvesting and penguin hunting. The problem is particularly prevalent where humans and penguins live in close proximity to each other.

An example is in South America, where harvesting of penguin guano is still legal as it is a component in specific fertilizers. Guano is very important to the penguins because it helps them make nesting spots for their eggs, but harvesting it means the nests are under destruction, and reduces their populations inadvertently.

If you are involved in agriculture and apply fertilizers on your land, it is essential to check the composition and avoid buying from suppliers who use suspected guano sources. You can also work to reduce water pollution, since many rivers will carry pollutants to the ocean.

  1. Lack of research

All the threats we mentioned above have a certain commonality: the lack of proper research into penguins and the factors that aid in their survival. Although you may know about their changing populations, the direct reasons behind these changes are still unknown and under research, making it challenging to map out strategies for conserving the birds. 

Other than these threats, penguins also face predation threats from marine animals, storms that destroy their nesting areas, and occasional outbreaks of diseases in penguin colonies.

Conclusion

Penguins are spectacular birds, but they have their predator threats especially marine animals like killer whales and leopard seals, as well as bird predators. Additionally, human activities have led to significant decreases in their populations, and the most affected penguin species include the Emperor penguins and African penguins, particularly due to climate change.

FAQs

What strategies do penguins use to defend themselves from predators?

They can only choose to remain alert at all times, as they do not have significant force, fangs or claws to fend off enemies. Their usual method is to escape to the ocean, although this proves dangerous when they are escaping from leopard seals.

What makes penguins attractive prey?

This is mainly due to their fat layers, which provide plenty of nutrition to their predators despite protecting the penguin against the cold. As a general rule, bigger penguins will always come from colder areas.