Are Penguins Dangerous? | Do Penguins Harm People?

Most people view penguins as adorable, innocent animals that look like they just want to be cuddled. However, are penguins dangerous? Well, penguins are in fact actually more dangerous than you may imagine, and many harbor dark secrets. 

There are a number of different penguin species, and they vary in temperament and behavior. They can inflict painful bites and are even known to commit murder!

Are Penguins Harmful Animals?

Despite their cute and cuddly appearance, penguins can be feisty birds. There are 18 different species of penguins, all of which have very different temperaments. Penguins fight with one another using their beaks and flippers. There have been numerous reports of penguins attacking humans, and they do so in the same way they fight other penguins. 

Do Penguins Bite? 

In spite of their lovable exterior, penguins’ mouths are rather gruesome and scary looking. When penguins open their bill, they expose their large, spiky interior. 

Penguins, like all birds, do not have teeth. Instead, they have large, distinctive spines called papillae, which cover their tongue and the top, bottom, and sides of their mouth. Papillae simply translate to ‘small protuberance’ (although they are large in penguins). 

Fish make up the majority of a penguin’s diet, which is slippery and can be difficult to swallow. Papillae enable penguins to grip the slippery fish and guide them down their esophagus to swallow them whole. 

Penguins can peck using their beaks, which cause small cuts that can bleed. Their pointed beaks have a hooked tip which creates a sharp bite. The bits are often deep and can tear off flesh. This can occur to both penguins and humans. 

Inside view of a penguin’s mouth
Inside view of a penguin’s mouth, exposing the papillae
Source: Reddit by CC 3.0

Are Penguins Scared of Humans?

Penguins do not appear to display an inherent fear of humans. This is most likely the result of no prior experience of threat from people within their natural environment.

Why Do Penguins Become Aggressive to People? 

Penguins will only attack humans if they feel threatened. Usually, this is when people venture too close to them, their nest, or their young. They are predatory birds, so their natural instinct is to be aggressive toward any potential threats. 

People who visit Antarctica to see penguins are advised to stay at least 5m away from the birds. This is to prevent their personal space from being invaded, which could result in an attack. 

Loud noises can lead to penguins becoming aggressive. This is because they can scare penguins and make them believe they are in danger. 

Humans and penguins do not live in the same environment or frequently come into contact with one another. Due to this, they do not fear people. Despite humans being much larger than penguins, they will not hesitate to attack if they feel threatened. 

What Happens When a Penguin Attacks a Human? 

There have been no recorded deaths of humans from penguin attacks. However, people have sustained nasty injuries from them. 

Penguins attack humans in a similar way that they would fight other penguins. They flap their flippers, using them to hit and strike their attacker. This can cause quite a sting. However, their beaks are what cause the most damage. 

The hooked bills of penguins are sharp and strong. They can easily pierce deep into the skin and rip off chunks of flesh. The bites themselves often draw a lot of blood. 

Additionally, since penguins live on ice, the fighting ground can be very slippery. As humans do not have claws to help them grip the ice, they can easily slip and lose their balance during a penguin attack. This could lead to broken bones and head injuries. 

If a penguin begins to approach you and seems aggressive, you should slowly back away, without turning your back on them. If injuries are sustained, help should be sought immediately. 

How Dangerous Are Penguins and Where Do They Live?

Emperor Penguins

The Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes fosteri) is endemic to Antarctica. Penguins spend most of their time in the icy waters where they hunt. They breed on ice sheets. There are over 50 known Emperor penguin breeding colonies. 

Emperor penguins are perfectly adapted to living in the Arctic, which can drop 40 degrees below freezing. They are distributed throughout the whole of Antarctica. 

Emperor penguins are the largest penguin species. They can reach around 4 feet and weigh up to 100 pounds. Due to their large size, they can be rather dangerous. Their beaks and flippers will likely inflict more damage than a penguin of a smaller size, even if it’s more aggressive. 

How Dangerous Are Penguins and Where Do They Live
Group of Emperor Penguins on the ice
Credit: Denis Luyten

Galapagos Penguins

As their name suggests, Galapagos penguins (Eudyptula minor) are endemic to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. They are a unique species in the fact they are the only penguins that are found north of the equator. They frequent rocky shores and coastlines. 

The Galapagos Islands have a very warm climate, which is why it is unusual to find penguins there since most species live in cold environments. Due to this, they have evolved strategies to stay cool. 

Like all penguins, the Galapagos penguins can show aggression and become dangerous if they feel threatened. However, they are one of the more friendly species. You can often swim fairly close to them. However, caution must still be taken to not invade their space and they are most likely to attack when their young, mate, or food is around.

Galapagos Penguins
Pair of Galapagos Penguins on a rock
Credit: Judy Gallagher by CC 2.0

Adelie Penguins 

Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) live along the entire coast of Antarctica. They breed on rocky shores but are usually found swimming in the cold waters or gathering in groups on ice sheets. 

Adelie penguins are a fairly small species and can be as little as 1.5 feet high. Despite their small size and cute appearance, they are feisty birds. They have been recorded taking on huge predators, including seals and large seabirds. They are also known for attacking researchers with slaps of their flippers.

Adelie Penguins
Group of Adelie Penguins on an ice sheet
Credit: Jason Auch by CC 2.0

FAQ Are Penguins Dangerous?

You may also like to read Why Do Ducks Have Feathers?