Inside A Penguin’s Mouth

inside a penguin's mouth

Inside a penguin’s mouth is unique among birds. They have sharp looking ridged papillae on the roof of their mouth and on their tongues. These ridges are used to push fish down their throats, but they look pretty menacing! However, penguins are very gentle, affectionate swimming birds that live in communities. There are no teeth inside a penguin’s mouth, but that doesn’t matter because they don’t need to chew their dinner. Today we’ll take a look at how and what adult penguins and chicks eat. And we’ll share how their unusual looking mouths help them to efficiently make the most of their meals.


With their waddling walk, stubby neck, and streamlined black and white tuxedo body, the penguin is one of nature’s most recognizable and beloved creatures. Although penguins are flightless birds, they are amazing swimmers and divers, with some species able to reach speeds of up to 36 kilometers per hour.
Maybe you’ve watched penguins getting their dinner at the zoo, but you’ve probably never gotten a good look at what’s inside a penguin’s mouth. If you’ve wondered if penguins have teeth or a tongue and exactly how they eat their food, we’ve got all the answers, so keep reading.

What’s Inside a Penguin’s Mouth?

If you ever get a chance to look inside a penguin’s mouth, you might be surprised at what you see. The roof of their mouth and tongue is covered in rows of fleshy spines called papillae that bend inward toward their throat. Imagine a barbed fish hook, and then imagine lots of them to get an idea of what it’s like inside a penguin’s mouth.

Papillae Inside a Penguin’s Mouth

All tongues have papillae, but those inside a penguin’s mouth are much more prominent. They look sharp on the top and bend inwards toward the back of the mouth so that slippery fish and other prey can easily slide down their throat. Penguins eat fish head first, so the fins don’t get stuck if their dinner tries to wriggle out. Instead, they’ll get caught on the barbed spines.

inside a penguin's mouth

Do Penguins Have a Tongue?

Penguins do have a tongue. Like the roof of their mouth, it also has spikes. Picturing the stalagmites and stalactites you’d see in a cave will give you an idea of what they look like.

Are There Teeth Inside a Penguin’s Mouth?

Like other birds, penguins do not have teeth. The papillae allow them to get a good grip on their food and guide it down their throat. However, before they hatch, penguins have what’s known as an egg-tooth. It’s a handy little protuberance on the beak used to help break out of the shell. It’s something all birds and even reptiles have that is later lost.

Do Penguins Chew their Food?

No, penguins don’t have teeth and don’t chew their food. While spiky papillae push the food down their throat, you may wonder how they’re able to digest a whole fish. The answer is stones. Swallowing stones or pebbles helps break down the penguin’s food so it can be processed in their stomach. These pebbles may dissolve or move through their digestive tract and eventually be pooped out.

Are Their Taste Buds Inside a Penguin’s Mouth?

Most vertebrates can detect five basic taste qualities. While most birds lack the gene receptors for sweetness, studies show that penguins have even fewer taste buds and are also unable to detect bitter or savory flavors. It leaves them with the ability to distinguish saltiness and sourness.

It has been suggested that the sweet, umami and bitter tastes have evolved out of all penguins because they live in the coldest environments where those receptors cannot function. Considering that they usually swallow their food whole, they don’t have much time to taste it anyway.

Why Do Penguins Shake their Head When They Eat?

When penguins eat, they take in a significant amount of salt water. The penguin’s beak has supraorbital glands on either side of the beak located above the eye that filters the salt from the water.

When a penguin shakes his head or sneezes, he’s releasing salt from that gland. If penguins couldn’t do this, they’d become dehydrated from ingesting too much salt water.

What do Penguins Eat?

Penguins are carnivores. They eat primarily fish of all types, but smaller fish make up the bulk of most penguin’s diets. They also eat other small ocean creatures, such as shrimp, squid, and tiny crustaceans called krill that look similar to shrimp.

A penguins’ diet will depend a lot on their size and where they live. There are 18 species of penguins that range in size from 16 to 45 inches and weigh from two to 82 pounds.

How do Baby Penguins Eat?

Baby penguins are called chicks or nestlings, and for the first few months of life, they are completely reliant on their parents for food. Babies cannot digest food like adult penguins, and the parents must change it into a form that the nestlings can eat.

The parent will swallow the food and partially digest it, which takes a few hours. When they return to their chick, they regurgitate it directly into the baby’s beak. As they get bigger, the nestlings are shown how to catch their food and eat pebbles to digest it. Once they reach five or six months of age, they become independent.

What Does a Penguin’s Beak Look Like?

The penguins’ sharp, hooked beaks are one of their defining features. Two nares located on either side allow the penguin to breathe when their beak is closed and are where they secrete the salt they ingest. Their beaks are made of hard keratin and vary in color, size, and sharpness depending on the species.
Since penguins are without hands or paws, their beaks come in handy. When penguins dive into the water, they use their beak to catch prey as they swim. While their curved beak mainly helps them catch and kill their food, they also use their beaks to preen their feathers and to help fight off predators or other penguins.

Inside a Penguin’s Mouth

Instead of teeth, penguins have fleshy ridges on the tongue and roof of the mouth that allow them to swallow fish and other prey whole. These specialized papillae bend inward so they can grasp and guide their food down their throat. No chewing is required.

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