Penguins are flightless birds that live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere except for the Galapagos penguins endemic to the Galapagos Islands located north of the equator. There are 18 species of these marine birds with the blue or fairy penguin as the smallest and the emperor penguin as the biggest. These stocky and short-legged birds with black back and white belly feed on krills, squid, and fish underwater. There are predators both on land and in the water. The penguin’s ability to swim 15 miles an hour, dive deep fast, or leap out of the water helped them escape.
Main Penguin Predators
1. Killer Whale
The Orca is one of the most powerful predators in the world and is at the top of the food chain. This penguin predator grows to a size of 23 to 32 feet and can weigh as much as 6 tons. Type B orcas, the smaller ones that have a large white eye patch and a yellow tinge, feed mostly on seals and penguins particularly the Gentoo and chinstrap species. They break through a sheet of floating ice from below or tip their prey over and give chase to eat their choice cut of penguin breast meat. Being fussy eaters, they remove the feathers and skin to get to the breast tissue.
2. Leopard Seal
This fierce predator of penguins, the second largest species of seal in the Antarctic, can grow to a size of 10 to 11.5 feet, weigh up to 840 pounds, and has an average life span of 12 to 15 years in the wild. It uses its long teeth and powerful jaws to hunt its prey, which includes the emperor, Gentoo, Adelie, and rockhopper penguins in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters. This earless sea leopard that has an elongated head and short whiskers can stay long in the frigid waters with its blubber or a thick layer of fat as it waits for the birds to jump off the ice to enter the ocean. It grabs the feet and shakes and beats the body against the water surface.
3. Sea Lion
A sea lion is a pinniped (fin-footed) marine mammal and is characterized by small external ear flaps, long foreflippers, and big chest and belly. A male sea lion referred to as a bull can grow as big as 8 feet with an average weight of 300 kg. It can move as fast as 30 to 56 km/h in water and can give chase to a penguin. Its hindflippers can rotate forward as it gallops on land to hunt the bird. When its prey is dead, the sea lion grabs it by the neck and goes back into the water to eat.
4. Antarctic Fur Seal
Mostly found in the Antarctic region, this penguin predator with a long neck and pointed muzzle can use its flippers to prop itself up to a standing position or to walk. This pinniped that is closely related to the sea lion can grow 6.5 feet in length and weigh from 90 to 215 kg, with females being smaller than males. Mostly, they eat krill, fish and squid; however, the males can also feed on penguins. It can be as fast as 20 km per hour in land and even faster in water, which makes the hunt for penguins easier.
5. South Polar Skua
This predatory seabird, which breeds in the Antarctic region, usually feeds on eggs and young chicks of penguins. The skuas choose to settle on or near the penguin breeding colony and try to steal their chicks or eggs from inexperienced or inattentive penguin pairs. They usually attack in twos in which one would provide a distraction while the other would steal. However, they have to be wary around the Adelie penguins as these have rigid flippers that can break their wings. When the penguins left after the mating season, the skuas feed on fish that they mostly steal from other birds.
6. Giant Petrel
This large seabird is an aggressive predator and scavenger that feeds on land and sea whenever and wherever an opportunity presents itself. It even feeds on carrion or decaying flesh of dead animals. Where there are breeding colonies of penguins, the giant petrels are there to feed on abandoned young chicks, penguin eggs, and even wounded adult penguins that are unable to defend themselves. These opportunistic penguin predators used their sharp bills to catch their prey and tear it apart.
These small to medium-sized mammals would often hunt penguins in the absence of their natural prey such as frogs, birds, and rabbits. It was said that a single fox can kill as many as 40 to 60 penguins in one night not to feed on them but just to hunt and break their necks. Foxes have this instinct to kill beyond its immediate need for a meal and saving food for the rainy days, and it is called surplus killing. The presence of foxes in islands where there are penguins would result in a significant decrease in the penguin population.
Next predator of penguins is sheathbill, which is a small bird that has white feathers. It is not a strong predator but it does feed on a weak penguin, abandoned chick, or egg. However, making a hole on the egg would take some time and the sheathbill is often chased away before it can consume the baby penguin. It is mostly good at eating spills, leftovers, and remains. Another thing it is good at is stealing food from a penguin about to feed its chick. The sheathbill often lands on the head of the penguin causing it to drop the partly digested food and steal it.
The ferret is considered a pet by many, but it is a menace to the penguin population where it resides. Ferrets usually kill more than they need to, and they can kill something bigger than them. It was said that a ferret that weighed around 1 kg killed an adult penguin weighing 6 kg by latching on to the neck and breaking the vertebrae.
It is a mammal that has bony plates that cover the head, back, legs, and tail. It can grow from 5 to 59 inches and weigh from 3 ounces to as much as 120 pounds. Armadillos have poor eyesight and use their sense of smell to hunt their prey, which includes ants, termites, and beetles. It is also known to hunt penguins.
11. Great White Shark
The great white or white shark is one of the greatest predators in the ocean. This predator of penguins can grow up to 20 feet in length and weigh as much as 2,268 kg, with females being larger than males. It can prey upon a wide variety of species including fish, dolphins, seals, turtles, and seabirds depending on what is available in their area. It occasionally feeds on penguins as well. Great whites are said to prefer prey that is rich in fat or has high energy content. Their preference change as they age or reach sexual maturity. They depend on their sense of smell and hearing when hunting their prey.
Threats to the survival of penguins are not just the predators in water and on land that consider them food; humans are also a big threat because they kill penguins for their oil, feather, and skin. The oil is used for lamps and tanning leathers, the feathers are used for decoration and mattress stuffing, and the skin is used in making golf gloves.
I hope that this article on penguin predators was helpful! If you are interested, visit the Animal Facts Page!