Penguins have many predators both in the water and on land. However, they have some adaptations that help to protect them from animals such as killer whales, leopard seals and eagles.
While in the water penguins use their black and white colour to camouflage themselves. They are also excellent swimmers, able to turn and twist effortlessly and with amazing acceleration. While on land, young and small penguins are at risk of eagles, gulls, and caracaras but being a part of the colony helps reduce predation.
Penguins don’t have any natural defence against predators but if you want to find out more about how penguins avoid predators then please read on.
What are the predators of penguins?
Penguins don’t face any land-based predators but they are aerial and marine predators. Other birds such as skuas, eagles, falcons, gulls, and caracaras may feed on young or small penguins and the eggs.
Marine mammals such as leopard seals and killer whales are the biggest threat to penguins when in the water. Killer whales are known to just eat the breast meat of penguins, sometimes stripping off the feathers with the help of other orcas.
Black and white camouflage
Penguins are well known for their black and white colouring. The striking pattern of white breasts with black backs are not just for show. Although no two penguins are the same, the boundary between black and white is similar between most penguins.
Penguins use their colouring to their advantage while in the water. When a penguin is underwater, the black backs seamlessly blend into the water when viewed from above. This stops predators from seeing them when swimming above them.
If a predator comes from below then the white body blends into the light sky above, disguising the penguin and hopefully stopping an attack. Penguins that don’t have black backs and white breasts are at a considerable disadvantage while in the water.
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Penguins are excellent swimmers and can twist and turn in the water quicker than most marine mammals. Penguins also have amazing acceleration when swimming that allows them to avoid dangerous situations.
Penguins show extreme bursts of speed when swimming if required and can reach speeds of up to 7 metres per second over short distances.
These sudden bursts of speed are essential for the penguin to avoid predators. Leopard seals often prey on penguins while in the sea. Leopard seals cannot outswim penguins over short distances and penguins often get away.
However, leopard seals are resourceful and have found other ways to catch penguins. Some will sit on the ice waiting for the penguins to jump out of the water, while others have found an even more ingenious way.
Leopard seals will wait until the penguin jumps into the water. By laying underwater near the ice shelf, leopard seals will catch penguins jumping into the water. As the penguins enter the water, air bubbles disrupt their view and the leopard seal strikes.
If the penguin can escape the initial surprise attack from a leopard seal then their speed should carry them to safety.
Although you may have seen this video of a penguin jumping on a tour boat to escape a pod of killer whales most arent so lucky. Killer whales have several methods for catching penguins and work together to achieve this.
Penguins need to use their speed and cornering ability to get away from killer whales. Orcas may have been responsible for a 50% decline in emperor penguins during the 1970s.
It was found in a study in 2010 that orcas have started feeding on penguins around sub-antarctic islands. Killer whales only eat the breast meat of penguins, sometimes stripping it down to remove the feathers first.
It was shown in the study that the penguins would porpoise out of the water and change direction rapidly underwater to avoid capture.
Porpoising is when a penguin jumps out of the water. This is an excellent way to avoid capture and a penguin being pursued by an orca can often be seen porpoising.
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Penguins don’t just have to deal with attacks while underwater but also while on land. While leopard seals pose a threat for penguins sitting on the ice, penguins also have to look to the skies in order to survive.
Although large penguins shouldn’t have too much trouble with birds trying to attack them, smaller and younger penguins need to be aware of their surroundings.
Sea eagles can pick small penguins up and carry them back to their nest. While a penguin’s black and white colouration is good camouflage while in the water it is not so good while on land.
Penguins will try to avoid threats from aerial predators by choosing a good location in the colony. As well as sea eagles, penguins also have to look out for gulls, falcons, and caracaras who will feed on the young. While there are very few land predators other birds can decimate the future populations by feeding on the chicks.
Strength in numbers
Penguins are extremely social and are one of the most sociable birds and they use this to their advantage to avoid predators. Penguins gather at the ice edge before diving into the water, sometimes up to a few thousand strong. Penguins are extremely vigilant for predators which is why huge crowds can gather.
Sometimes they will all leave at the same time showing that strength in numbers works. If there is a leopard seal waiting under the ice shelf then the sheer number of penguins means that only one is usually caught.
The penguins onshore will call to any penguins in the water, possibly asking if it is safe to jump in. Penguins gather in a group in the water once they have jumped in before setting off.
If a predator such as a killer whale or leopard seal appears then the group disbands, scattering in all directions.
Penguins that live in Antarctica do not have to deal with any land-based predators, only dealing with leopard seals and killer whales in the water.