What Do Penguins Eat: Complete List of What Penguins Feed On

Like most creatures, penguins have a range of food that they will eat. But exactly what do penguins eat? That’s what we’ll explore in more detail here.

Let’s start with the quick takeaway answer, then we’ll get into more details…

All 18 species of penguin are carnivores, smaller penguin species are considered to be piscivores as their diet consists mainly of fish. Overall, penguins eat krill, squid, fish, crustaceans, jellyfish, and Amphipods. Diets vary slightly between species, which reduces food competition.

Getting into more details, let’s first cover what penguins eat as part of their general diet.

What do penguins eat – General penguin diet

Penguins are primarily carnivores. They commonly have a diet rich in krill, squids, fishes, crustaceans, jellyfish, and Amphipods.

This typical diet will vary according to the species. The difference mainly comes from different food preferences of species.

These varied preferences also help them to reduce competition for food among penguins as well.

penguin in antarctic tundra
penguin in antarctic tundra

Penguin diet preferences vary by species

Smaller penguin species who inhabit Antarctica and the Subantarctic will primarily feed on krill and squid. Whereas species found in the north have a preference to eat mainly fish.

If you take the Adélie penguins as a typical example. They feed primarily on small krill, while chinstraps – so-called due to the narrow black band of plumage across their throats, forage for large krill.

Larger penguin species, however, such as the Emperor and King penguins, eat fish and squids. This is one demonstrable area where the diet and food preferences of penguins vary by species.

Penguins eat fish

If you take the penguin species in general, most of them could be considered piscivores, meaning their diet consists mainly of fish.

For some penguin species, an abundance of nutrient-rich fish varieties is important to help them through the fasting period. The fasting period is a time in which they fast for weeks to grow feathers and for feeding/raising their young.

Competition for food between penguins and humans

Sadly, humans like to eat the same calorie-rich foods as penguins.

So when we tend to overfish the kinds of fish penguins rely on, they’re often left with fewer and more limited choices.

This compels them to swim farther to locate food, which often has lower nutrients than what their bodies require.

What this means for larger species of penguins who need more food than other species is that they’re unable to eat enough to feed both themselves and their offspring.

This condition leads to an ecological trap that results in the abandonment of their young and even a decline of endangered penguins.

In some instances, the food penguins eat and their quantity vary by location and different seasons of the year.

Check out the top 10 animals that live in the Tundra.

Penguin food preferences vary by season and location

To offer up some statistics, an entire breeding population of the Adélie penguins may consume as much as 1,500,000,000 kg of krill, 115,000,000 fish, and 3,500,000 squids each year. that’s a very large quantity of food required to sustain one species.

Any lack of food may lead to unusual habits such as swallowing stones…

king penguins

Penguins swallow stones

Although it may be surprising to hear, penguins have been found to have stones in their stomach contents.

Stones have routinely been found in Emperor, Adelie, African, Gentoo, Magellanic, and yellow-eyed penguins.

While it’s not entirely concluded whether all these species swallow stones on purpose or by accident, king, rockhopper, and macaroni penguins have been seen to purposely swallow stones on numerous occasions.

Some believe that stone swallowing as a part of their diet helps penguins reduce buoyancy while diving or it may be an attempt to alleviate the sensation of hunger. 

Although in some species, stone swallowing is a natural occurrence.

Species such as the rockhopper and macaroni swallow stones to help them with the digestion of tough exoskeletons of the crustaceans, which is an important part of their diet.

What do penguins eat – Food collection

Penguins mainly depend on their vision when it comes to sourcing food.

However, marine biologists are still unsure how penguins source their food in the dark at night or in great depths.

Some experts believe that these animals are helped by the unique bioluminescence (light-producing) capabilities of many oceanic squids, crustaceans, and some fish. 

These light illuminations make it easier for penguins to spot their prey.

Observations also noted that some species of penguins like Galápagos penguins and flightless cormorants undertake maneuvers to force their prey to stay near the seashore and the surface of the water for longer.

This strategy allows them to increase the flock of prey they can feed on.  

When it comes to sourcing food, different species travel a variety of distances from the colony to search for food.

On average the distance, they travel to source food range from 9 miles for Adelies species or 550 miles for the king penguins.

On the other hand, the Emperor penguins may cover a distance of up to 900 miles for a single foraging trip.

However, most of their feeding occurs at a distance of 15 -18 miles of the surface.

The location they choose to source food will vary based on seasons and even daily factors such as weather and tidal movements.

When fishing holes are further away, penguins will feed on seal holes and other openings they come across in the ice. Penguins are not always treated well by seals though!

Penguins can regurgitate partially digest food in order to feed their young.

what do penguins eat - parent regurgitates food for its young
what do penguins eat – parents regurgitate food for their young

Penguin eating patterns

When it comes to eating, penguins will catch their prey using their bills and swallow it as a whole while they swim.

They also have a spiny tongue and a powerful jaw that helps them in getting a good grip on slippery prey.

Again very specific to penguins’ feeding patterns is that they are seen to participate in a multispecies feeding regime.

This is where they were observed to feed alongside numerous types of seabirds, such as the following:

  • Cormorant (Campsohaelius harrisi, formerly Nannopterum harrisi),
  • Blue-footed (Sula nebouxii)
  • Masked booby (Sula dactylatra)
  • Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
  • Brown noddy (Anous stolidus)
  • Audubon shearwater (Puffinus lhenninieri)
  • Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens)

Now let’s move on to a few additional questions asked around a penguin’s diet.

Do penguins eat meat?

Penguins are carnivores so they will only eat meat. Their diet includes krill, which are small crustaceans, fish, and squid, depending on location and availability. A large population of penguins can clear local waters of food in a short space of time, forcing them to forage further afield.

Do penguins eat plankton?

Penguins are carnivores but are considered to be heterotrophic carnivores. Plankton is marine life that can only move with the current, this could include krill. All penguins will supplement their diet with a variety of plankton, small marine invertebrates, and even cephalopods.

Do penguins eat plants?

Penguins are carnivorous, they do not eat any aquatic or terrestrial plant matter. Their body is not designed to consume or digest plants. Plant matter does not offer the necessary fat and energy required to sustain them. Fish, krill, or squid do provide these necessary ingredients.

Check out the complete list of animals that eat grass.

What do penguins eat – more wildlife help

We hope this has been useful in answering the question “What do penguins eat”. Be sure to check out more interesting wildlife content from Ranger Planet.

Check out the following related posts:

Are penguins birds
Can penguins fly
Do seals eat penguins


A Certified Ecologist and an Entomologist, Michael has been interested in all aspects of Nature for many years. It's only now he's decided, along with his partner Fran, to begin documenting what he knows.

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