What are the predators of penguins?
The food chain requires that some animals have to feed on others to survive. If you were an animal in the wild, there would always be many predators lurking around you and seeking the slightest opportunity to feed on you.
As penguins spend a lot of time in the water, most of their predators are marine animals and sharks. Perhaps the most dangerous for them is the leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), a member of the Phocidae family that is characterized by its aggressiveness. In the Antarctic waters, it is one of the main predators of the penguins, as it can attack them both inside and outside the ocean.
In the latter case, the seals watch the horizon to detect prey or sniff into holes in the ice or seek on the shores for penguins. It is fair to credit them for their very efficient huntings tactics: when leaving the water, they move awkwardly on the ice or the ground to chase penguins, and usually some frightened individual jump into the ocean trying to escape. Then, the seal seizes the moment and returns to the water, where it is agile and fast thanks to its body in the form of a torpedo, and it usually captures the penguin.
Sea Lions, members of the Otariidae family, also feed on penguins if the occasion allows it. The Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) can hunt Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) from time to time, but penguins are usually safe from this species because they prefer fish, which are much easier to catch.
Certainly, we can not forget other great predators of the oceans: sharks and killer whales. The former are well-known and aggressive carnivores, but they are not fanatics to feed on birds and less on penguins. Even so, sometimes these become their meal of the day. Killer whales, on the other hand, are super predators and have a varied diet that sometimes includes penguins.
On land, birds called Skúas (Stercorarius) are always prowling. They are not big, but tough and capable of attacking live chicks that still are in their nests or the creches. They also steal eggs, from which they can feed. It may be surprising that sometimes two skuas work together to get the loot. Once they have detected the target in the penguin’s nest, one of them is responsible for distracting the adult and the other hurries to catch the egg or the chick. Antarctic pigeons are even bolder than them: at the moment the father regurgitates his food to feed the chick, they fly towards them and steal the food for the young penguin.
A modern problem: introduced predators.
Dogs, foxes, snakes, weasels, and cats brought from other parts of the world to the Antarctic and the islands where penguin populations live also feed on eggs and chicks; they are unnatural predators that penguins did not have before. These animals usually catch young or steal their eggs.
Today, the foxes introduced in Australia are the main predators of the little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) and the cats that came to Dassen Island like to eat African penguin chicks (Spheniscus demersus). A major problem occurred a few decades ago when five cats that were taken to Marion Island to kill the mice introduced by seal hunters quickly reproduced, and after a few years they became the principal predators of penguin chicks.
Indeed, not all penguins have the same predators. The Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) has to be aware of red foxes, gray foxes, giant petrels, ferrets, South American sea lions, seagulls and even pumas. The king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) has to mind brown skuas, Antarctic sea lions, giant petrels and subantarctic sea lions. On its habitat, the African penguin has the yellow mongooses, Cape sea lions, African sacred ibis and Cape genets as predators, just to mention some examples.
Penguins do not have claws, fangs or significant force to defend themselves, so they have to cooperate to stay alert to predators and avoid attacks. Usually, these birds flee when chased, and tend to go into the ocean to escape. However, this is sometimes adverse, as deadly carnivores like the leopard seal are more dangerous when hunting in the water.
If attacked by flying birds, penguins respond with flappings and menacing beaks to intimidate them. Parents try to protect their nest and do not leave the site unless the danger is imminent.
Animals, a visual encyclopedia. Second edition. Smithsonian 2012.
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