The penguin family consists of between 17 and 19 different species of aquatic, flightless birds. To determine exactly what do penguins eat, it’s necessary to consider each different genus of penguin.
Thanks to the variation in location of the different species – and which are almost exclusively found in the Southern Hemisphere – the actual diet of each type of penguin is a result of the prevalence of prey available in their habitat.
How do penguins hunt for food?
When hunting, penguins catch their prey in their powerful jaws and swallow the creatures whole. They will also dive to between 50-60 ft. (15-18m) below the surface of the water. The depths to which they must go in order to hunt can vary dramatically between the seasons and even the day, as a result of variable sea conditions.
Scientists have also observed penguins across all species intentionally swallowing stones. They believe this is intended to help reduce buoyancy when hunting, allowing them to dive deeper, as well as aiding the process of breaking down the food in their stomachs.
So what do penguins eat?
The diet of great penguins
Found on the Subantarctic islands and the Antarctic, this group comprises King and emperor penguins. The diet of these two species of penguin is made up of 80% fish, particularly the lantern fish. The emperors eat a combination of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods, while the King penguin supplements its diet with krill.
Emperor penguins have been known to travel exceptional distances to forage for food, including between 102-903-miles (164-1,454 km) from their colony in a single hunting trip. King penguins have been recorded travelling up to 559-miles (900 km) from their colony.
The diet of brush-tailed penguins
Formed of Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins, these species live on islands in the Antarctic, Subantarctic and Southern Pacific. They mainly consume Antarctic krill, silverfish and glacial squid. Varying according to their location and habitat, the fish consumption of brush-tailed penguins can range from 15% to 50%.
The diet of little penguins
This group consists of the white-flippered and little blue penguins, both of which are live along coastlines in New Zealand and Australia. They live off a diet of squid and fish and only hunt to depths of up to 20 ft. (6m) below the sea.
The diet of banded penguins
This groups includes the northernmost penguin species, the Galápagos penguin, alongside the Magellanic, Humboldt and African penguins. Found in habitats ranging from the Galápagos Islands, the coasts of South America and South Africa, this groups feed on small fish such as sardines, cuttlefish and crustaceans. The African penguin also eats anchovies and pilchards.
The diet of yellow-eyed penguins
Consisting of only the yellow-eyed species of penguin, this species lives in New Zealand and their diet consists of small fish and arrow squid.
The diet of crested penguins
This large groups includes the Macaroni penguin, the Fiordland penguin, the Snares penguin, the erect-crested penguin, the southern rockhopper penguin, the northern rockhopper penguin, the Chatham Islands penguin and the Royal penguin. Found on a range of Subantarctic islands, this group of penguin species eats krill and small aquatic animals such as squid, crustaceans and octopus.