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Can Emperor Penguins Taste Fish?

by Holly Chavez Blog

Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea, Weddell Sea

Highlights: Emperor Penguin

Can Emperor Penguins Taste Fish?

Emperor penguins are a delight to encounter, and they are definitely a favorite among people who enjoy taking Antarctica expeditionsHowever, this beloved bird experiences life a bit differently from the rest of us. In fact, recent discoveries have given us a new glimpse into what it is like to live life as an emperor penguin.

The Joys of Eating

When you think about your favorite food, you most likely immediately conjure up memories that are directly related to your taste buds. For example, if you love pizza, the taste of the melted cheese is probably one of the main reasons that you indulge in this type of food on a regular basis. Now imagine for a moment what it would be like to remove the best aspect of eating. Unfortunately, emperor penguins cannot taste anything that is savory, sweet or bitter. In other words, the fish that they dine on are tasteless. 

Is This an Evolutionary Advantage?

Emperor Penguins on Snow Hill ISland, Weddell Sea © James Cresswell | Oceanwide Expeditions

Eating is pleasurable for humans, but is this only true because we have so many options to choose from? It is hard to imagine eating the exact same food for every meal without getting bored, and our sense of taste could be a big disadvantage if we had limited options. After all, no matter how much you enjoy eating pizza, it would almost certainly cease to be your favorite if you ate it three times a day for the rest of your life. 

Emperor penguins live on a diet that primarily consists of fish, krill and squid. This means that they do not have much variety in their lives, but they probably do not notice this or consider it to be detrimental because they are unable to experience their food in the same way that we do. It is possible that these large bids can taste things that are sour or salty, but this has not been conclusively determined either way. Regardless, the main food staples that help emperor penguins survive would not fall under these categories. 

Were Emperor Penguins Always Like This?

© James Cresswell | Oceanwide Expeditions

Researchers believe that emperor penguins had a more highly developed sense of taste approximately 20 million years ago. However, when this species started moving into colder climate environments, it permanently altered their genetics. Scientists at the University of Michigan theorize that bitter temperatures caused the sweet, bitter and savory taste receptors to eventually recede because they do not work well in the cold. For example, if you were to spend an extended amount of time eating ice cream, you would discover that the sweet taste becomes increasingly less noticeable with each bite. The same thing would happen if you were to eat a very savory meal while sitting outside in subzero temperatures. 

There are some emperor penguins that now live in warmer environments, but they also do not have at least three of the five main taste buds. It is possible that their offspring could eventually redevelop a full palate, but it would probably take millions of years to reach this point. In the meantime, each emperor penguin has the same issue due to their ancestral genetic line. 

The Advantage of Swallowing Food Whole 

Before you begin feeling too sorry for emperor penguins and their limited dining experiences, do not forget that they eat their food whole. This is something humans do not usually do for a wide variety of reasons, including taste and concerns about choking. Fortunately, these dapper looking birds do not have these same worries and can swiftly consume enough food to thrive without pausing long enough to even understand that they might be missing out on something.  

Are There Any Disadvantages?

© James Cresswell | Oceanwide Expeditions

Scientists are trying to determine if the emperor penguin’s lack of taste buds makes them more susceptible to accidentally eating food that is toxic. Humans and many other species utilize their sour and bitter taste buds to figure out if food is toxic or spoiled, and this is something that these penguins are unable to do. Although an alternative method for isolating and avoiding toxic food has not yet been discovered by researchers, it is reasonable to assume that these birds have adapted to their limitations and are able to steer clear of most tainted food items. 



Now that you know more about the relationship between taste, food and emperor penguins, it will be even more intriguing to see them feeding while on an expedition. As you take pictures of them interacting with each other and gobbling down fish, you will no longer find yourself wondering how they put up with the same taste over and over again.

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