By Scott A. Rowan
What animals eat penguins?
Unfortunately for penguins, many species prey on the birds.
As a result of spending so much of their lifetime in the water, penguins are frequent targets for all sharks. But penguins have much more to fear from mammals – both marine mammals like whales, seals or sea lions and human-introduced land mammals like dogs, foxes, cats, and weasels.
While sharks will occasionally snack on penguins, killer whales make penguins a regular part of their diet. Despite their much larger size, orcas are very agile predators and are able to consistently feed on the birds.
Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are as problematic for penguins as killer whales, maybe even more so due to their clever attack strategy. Very aggressive, large, and armed with very delicate noses, leopard seals will sniff the water near holes in the ice to detect the presence of penguins on the surface. Once the seal determines there are enough penguins above worth the effort of an attack, the leopard seal will launch himself like a torpedo up through a hole in the ice and onto the surface.
Clumsy and loud, the leopard seal causes an instant panic attack in the penguins nearby with one or two of them invariably jumping into the water in an attempt to escape. However, that is just what the leopard seal wants. The seal will immediately return to the water and hunt down the penguins for a quick meal.
Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) will occasionally hunt Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) but seals are built for agility in water, not on land and their preference, apparently, is to feed on fish.
On land, penguins have to worry more about attacks from other birds. Skúas and Antarctic pigeons are two birds that prey on penguins. Though they are not as large as penguins, skuas are relentless, tough, and willing to work together in teams to snatch live chicks or eggs. One skua will work to distract an adult protecting his egg or chick while a second skua moves in to capture the chick or egg.
Antarctic pigeons have an even more aggressive, though disgusting, or, at the very least, unusual, predatory strategy. The pigeon will wait until the adult penguin regurgitates food into the mouth of the young chick and will swoop in and steal the food intended for the chick.
Unnatural species have become problems for many penguins, too, with the introduction of dogs and cats to islands near Australia. In 1949, five cats were taken to Marion Island to deal with rampant mice that overbred after the introduction of seal hunting by hunters. By 1977, there were more than 3,400 cats, who had taken a toll on the indigenous birds of the island, including all species of penguin chicks and the common diving petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix).
Today, the little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) is in danger in Australia due to foxes that feed on them. On Dassen Island, the feral cat problem has repeated itself much like the situation in Marion Island decades earlier. Largely uninhabited with the exception of the feral cats that overrun island after their introduction years ago, Dassen Island is no longer a safe place for African penguin chicks (Spheniscus demersus), the preferred prey of the feral cats.
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