Antarctica: What’s Eating that Penguin?

September 29, 2010 9:00 am

Boy meets penguin.

The Antarctic food chain is basic enough: Penguins rule on land. But they eat krill, and must venture into the sea to find it. Killer whales and seals feed on penguins, making the penguins’ necessary trips into the water dangerous.

Obviously this cycle misses the fish, predatory birds and krill-eating humpback whales, among other things, but you get the idea. But who’s bothering the penguins?

The Whales

Humpbacks (above) and killer whales are common in the Drake Passage and the waters surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula and continent. Although humpbacks feed on krill and fish, not penguins, killer whales are the penguins’ most deadly enemy. But the whales don’t always win…

If you’re having trouble accepting penguin death, watch this gentoo penguin outsmart an entire pod of killer whales, from FailBlog:


The Seals

It’s no wonder penguins are speedy swimmers and slow waddlers. Seals are more vicious predators under water, but they’re even slower and lazier than penguins when on land. The Crabeater seal (above) looks violent but eats krill and small fish — leopard seals eat their pups! This Weddell seal (below) preys on the occasional penguin but looks harmless on land. This makes for quite an interesting dynamic: Penguins will waddle within inches of Weddell seals on land, but in the ocean? Swim faster.

The Airborne Predators

I know, I said penguins are safe on land. And they are — but their chicks have some trouble.

Skuas love dive bombing into nests to snatch a weak one or two while the parents are away. But not all Antarctic birds are penguin Godzillas! Petrels, sheathbills, shags and terns are the seagulls of the South, and feed only on krill and fish. At least you can smile when they fly past with a catch.

Last but not least, stay tuned for a penguin guide, coming Friday!

Tara for TKGO

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