An Antarctic animal is any creature that lives in the southern continent – the coldest and driest continent in the world.
Although the Antarctic gets snow, it gets hardly any rainfall at all. Ice can be up to 4 kilometers deep, and with temperatures in the region sinking to blistering lows, it’s only along slightly warmer coastlines where animals come to the shore. The lowest temperature ever recorded was in Antarctica at minus 129 °F! (ca. 54 °C)
Most of the animals that live in Antarctica are seasonal visitors, as the conditions in winter are too harsh for most animals. However, a select few, like the emperor penguin, call it home all year round. The South Pole doesn’t support animal life, but Antarctica has various animals.
What animals live in Antarctica?
The Antarctic is still quite a mystery to many of us – no people live there, so many children may wonder what animals live in Antarctica. The ice-covered continent has low biodiversity, but a variety of specially-adapted animals can survive there, at least on a seasonal basis. Scientists visit the mainland for periods, as the location and its animals are fascinating.
The seas around Antarctica are the most populated in the region. Their inhabitants range from microscopic plankton to the blue whale – the largest animal ever living on planet earth.
Crustaceans mainly live in the sea; crabs, sea spiders, and shrimp are just a few examples of crustaceans that reside in Antarctica. Antarctic krill is only 6 cm, but they form the basis of the food web in the Antarctic, acting as the prey of whales, seals, and even birds. Scorpions and arachnids are often seen too. In addition, many invertebrates live in Antarctic waters, including jellyfish, sea urchins, octopus, squid, and marine snails.
Over 200 different species of fish form part of the diets of various mammals and sea life.
There are many species of arctic sharks that live in the Arctic ocean. These include the Greenland shark, a member of the sleeper shark family. This is the only Arctic shark found in these waters all year round and has evolved to live in the chilly depths. This shark’s tissues contain high levels of chemical compounds that act as anti-freeze and prevent ice crystals from forming in the body. As a result, these sharks conserve energy by swimming very slowly (about 1.12 feet per second) but can exhibit short bursts of speed to ambush prey.
The Greenland shark is one of the largest cartilaginous fishes. It can reach a length of 7 meters (23 feet) and a weight of 1,025 kg. Not only is this a vast arctic shark, but they also live very long lives. It can live for 400 years, twice the age of the oldest land mammal, the giant tortoise.
So, what does the Greenland Arctic shark eat? Greenland sharks are not fussy and consume various fish, squid, and carrion. Stomach contents of sharks have even included polar bears, horses, and reindeer.
60% of the world’s seal population live in Antarctica, with around six different varieties – the elephant seal, leopard seal, Weddell seal, crabeater seal, ross seal, and the fur seal. These penguins are the only land animals in the Antarctic.
Besides the impressive blue whale, there are orcas, humpback whales, sperm whales, fin whales, southern bottlenose whales, southern right whales, sei whales, and minke whales. You will also see walruses and narwhals.
There are 24 mammal species in Antarctica, all of which are marine. Below is the complete list:
- Antarctic fur seal
- Southern elephant seal
- Leopard seal
- Weddell seal
- Crabeater seal
- Ross seal
- Southern right whale
- Pygmy right whale
- Common minke whale
- Antarctic minke whale
- Sei whale
- Blue whale
- Fin whale
- Southern fin whale
- Humpback whale
- Sperm whale
- Arnoux’s beaked whale
- Gray’s beaked whale
- Southern bottlenose whale
- Spectacled porpoise
- Commerson’s dolphin
- Long-finned pilot whale
- Hourglass dolphin
- Arctic shark
There are millions of seabirds in the Antarctic. Penguins are one of the first animals we associate with the Antarctic, and besides seals, they are the only land animal on the continent. Many types of penguins live in the region. For example, the emperor penguin can be found all year round – they’re the only species able to breed in winter. The female penguin lays a giant egg on ice sheets, leaving it behind for the male while she searches for food underwater. The male penguins keep the egg warm until the female eventually returns with a belly full of food that she regurgitates and gives to both her young and the male penguin.
Rockhoppers, chinstraps, king, macaroni, gentoo, and Adélie penguins can also be found at different times of the year. Other species of penguin breed on nearby islands.
Albatrosses are also commonly associated with Antarctica; these seabirds have the most extensive bird wingspan, at around 3.1 m! There are also several other species of birds in the Antarctic, with the South Georgia pipit being the only Antarctic songbird.
How many species of animal live in Antarctica?
Thanks to adaptation, there are 235 animal species inhabiting the sterile environment of Antarctica.
Top Antarctic Animals
Weight: 200 tonnes
Length: 30 m
The largest and loudest animal ever known to have existed, blue whales are about 30 m long and 200 tones in weight. Their calls are louder than a jet engine, allowing them to hear one another from up to 1,000 miles away! Their hearts are the size of a small car, and they’re one of the world’s longest-lived animals, with an average lifespan of 80 to 90 years. Aggressive whaling in the 20th century nearly led to the species going extinct, and blue whales remain under threat today. Their population in Antarctica is around 2,000 – similar to that in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Blue whales follow a seasonal migration pattern: during the feeding season, they consume krill in cold polar waters before traveling to warmer, tropical waters to mate and give birth.
Weight: 5 kg
Length: 70 cm
Often found on pack ice on the Antarctic continent and the sub-Antarctic islands, Adélie penguins are the most southerly of the continent’s penguins. They’re one of the smaller penguin species, weighing around 5 kg and standing less than a meter tall. Their rookeries are large and loud and can contain up to 500,000 birds. To start the breeding process, males make a nest out of pebbles. Both males and females share parental duties, and their egalitarianism has been a frequent source of fascination for scientists.
Weight: 4.5 kg
Length: 65 cm
At around 4.5 kg and 65 cm in height, chinstrap penguins are more miniature than Adélie penguins. Their name is derived from a line of black feathers that wraps around their chin. Commonly, chinstrap penguins are found breeding on rocky coasts, away from the ice, between December and March. They inhabit the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctic islands, and sub-Antarctic islands. The species is noisy and sometimes violent, especially when making nests. To attract a mate, males make impressive nests from pebbles. However, it’s common for males to steal one another’s stones, leading to many little conflicts! Their striking appearance and eccentric behavior make them fantastic to observe.
Weight: 7 kg
Length: 1.1 – 1.4 m
With the longest wingspan of any bird on Earth, the wandering albatross is incredible to behold. Their wingspan can measure between 3.1-3.5 m, allowing them to fly huge distances without expending much energy. They’re often found in sub-Antarctic regions, most notably on exposed ridges on South Georgia and Prince Edward Island, and they stay with their mate for life. The number of wandering albatrosses is falling, with longline fishing hooks continuing to be a threat. Plus, the slow breeding process of the species means that their numbers aren’t replaced quickly, and with an estimated population of around 26,000, they’re considered vulnerable.
Weight: 300 – 500 kg
Length: 3.8 m
A leopard seal’s name is derived from the spots on its coat that are suggestive of the big cat. Leopard seals are ferocious predators who feed on smaller seals, penguins, fish, and squid. In addition, they employ ambush tactics and tend to wait below an ice shelf for birds to dive in to find food. They weigh between 300-500 kg and can grow to as long as 3.8 m! The species inhabit the sub-Antarctic islands and can also be found on open-pack ice – often nearby penguin colonies during their breeding season.
Weight: 800 – 3,700 kg
Length: 3.7 m
This impressive creature is the largest of all seals in Antarctica. Males can range between 1,500 kg to 3,700 kg, while females tend to be no more than 800 kg. This incredible disparity in size is known as sexual dimorphism, meaning that females are often mistaken for juveniles when seen next to male elephant seals. The creatures appear throughout the Antarctic region, particularly on sub-Antarctic islands, although they’re sometimes found as far north as the Falkland Islands. They can dive to 500 m for as long as 20 minutes. Males tend to forage on the ocean floor for food, while females hunt more in the open ocean.
Weight: 15 kg
Length: 85 – 95 cm
King penguins are the second-largest penguin species, smaller only than emperor penguins. They weigh around 15 kg on average and have golden feathers around their head and necks. They form huge colonies on slopes near the sea on sub-Antarctic islands, with notable examples on South Georgia, Macquarie Island, Prince Edward Island, and Heard Island. King penguins raise an average of two chicks every two years, and the creatures are serially monogamous.
Weight: 30 kg
Length: 1.2 m
Emperor penguins are the creatures most associated with Antarctica. The instantly-recognizable species are the giant penguins in the world and weigh an average of 30 kg. They have golden feathers around the sides of their head and are found all around the coasts of Antarctica. They generally live and breed on sea ice; many never step foot on land! Emperor penguins breed in the brutal winter of Antarctica, where temperatures can fall to a low as -60 °C, and huddle to shield against harsh conditions. The creatures were first spotted on Captain Cook’s second voyage between 1773-1775, and there are approximately 595,000 adult Emperor penguins in Antarctica.
Killer Whales (Orcas)
Weight: 3,000 – 4,000 kg
Length: 5 – 8 m
Killer whales – also called orcas – are the world’s largest species of dolphin. With a population of around 100,000, the creatures inhabit all of Earth’s oceans; however, most are found in Antarctica. They eat fish, seals and sea lions, porpoises and dolphins, sharks and rays, giant whales, cephalopods, seabirds, and more. They communicate through vocalizations and calls unique to pods and family groups. Males weigh up to 5,400 kg and measure up to 8 m in length; the creatures are lovely to see in the wild.
Length: 36 to 41 cm
Pure white besides their black eyes and beak, snow petrels are beautiful creatures. Despite being so small (snow petrels are about the same size as a pigeon), they’re hardy birds and can live in Antarctic conditions for up to 20 years. Around 4 million are in the wild and lay eggs between October and November, with their chicks fledging within six weeks. They’re often found near open water and are characteristically seen sitting on icebergs.
Weight: 2 g
Length: 6 cm
Antarctic krill are a species of fish found in the Antarctic waters. They’re among the largest of the 85 known krill species, and their estimated population ranges from 125 million tons to 6 trillion tons in the water around Antarctica. At different times of the year, krill congregate in swarms so dense and widespread that they’re visible from space. Despite being widely hunted – krill is a popular meal for many animals in Antarctica – the fish can live for up to ten years. As a result, they’re an essential cog in the ecosystem of the Antarctic, and in terms of biomass, the species is one of the most abundant on the planet.
Weight: 460 – 780 g
Length: 34 – 41 cm
Snowy sheathbills are small birds that live throughout the Antarctic region, from the Antarctic Peninsula and throughout the Scotia arc through the South Shetland, South Orkney, and South Sandwich groups to South Georgia and different islands along the way. These birds also migrate to the Falklands and various coastal regions of South America but live and breed primarily in Antarctica.
It is estimated that there are just under 200,000 snowy sheathbills worldwide, but their conservation status is not of enormous concern. In terms of their diet, snowy sheathbills are not picky eaters. These Antarctic animals are known as ‘opportunistic feeders,’ meaning they eat almost anything that crosses their path. You will often find snowy sheathbills foraging for food along shorelines, picking among washed-up seaweed for invertebrates. During the breeding season, these birds hang around sea-bird colonies, searching for eggs, chicks, and carrion (dead animals) to eat.
Sheathbills make a noise that sounds like ‘mutt-mutt-mutt,’ which has earned them the nickname ‘Mutts.’ Another nickname these birds have earned is ‘the bin men of the Antarctic’ because they will eat just about anything. Snowy sheathbills are also the only Antarctic bird species that don’t have webbed feet and cannot fish for food like the other birds.
Weight: 48,000 kg
Length: 26 m
While all whales are known for being huge, the fin whale is the second-longest, second only to the blue whale. At full size, it can grow up to 26 meters in length and weigh around 48,000 kg. Fin whales fall into the subcategory of baleen whales, which, among other things, means that the females of the species are slightly larger than the males.
In terms of its appearance, the back of fin whales is a dark grey/brownish-black, which fades down into a white belly. Their heads contain both color palates, with the majority being dark and the right lower jaw white.
Fin whales live predominantly in temperate and calm waters in the open ocean, staying away from super icy waters. It is in these waters that fin whales feed almost exclusively on krill.
Like all large whales, the fin whale is heavily endangered. This is mainly due to the vast amount of whale hunting in the 20th century that caused the population of fin whales to decrease drastically from the early 1900s until 1975.
Length: Around 10 cm
These strange-looking creatures can be found in the waters of Antarctica. They are mainly transparent, jelly-like, cylindrical animals, ranging from just a few millimeters in length at birth to around 10 cm at full size. However, one species of salps can grow more than a few meters.
Two types of salps can be found in Antarctic waters. The first is Salpa thompsoni, which thrives in ice-free areas, and the second is Ihlea racovitzai, which can be found only in high-latitude ice-edge areas.
In terms of diet, salps are what are known as non-selective filter feeders. Salps have a feeding net that captures all of their food. The net is made of a mesh material that is optimized for catching various sizes of particles, from bacteria to nauplius larvae. However, the primary food source for salps is phytoplankton. Therefore, salps tend to live in offshore environments with a decent concentration of phytoplankton. On the other hand, salps cannot survive in coastal areas because of the high concentration of inorganic particles there. These particles are dangerous for salps because they get in their feeding nets and cause them to become clogged, which, in turn, causes salps to die.
The process of eating for salps is all about filtration. Salps filter food particles by pumping seawater in from the mouth opening and out through the atrial opening using muscle contractions. This action of pumping water through the mouth also acts as a way to propel salps forward so that they can swim and feed at the same time.
How have Antarctic animals adapted to the cold conditions?
When considering what animals live in Antarctica, we must consider why these species survive these cold conditions.
Keeping body heat
- As seals do, thick blubbery skin can help insulate against the cold. Whales also have a layer of fat that keeps them warm.
- Penguins and even seals’ compact body shape allows heat to be kept for longer. But, on the other hand, the blue whale is enormous; it weighs over 150,000 kg, and its tongue alone weighs the same as an elephant. Nevertheless, it can be up to 30 meters long, so it survives well in these conditions.
- Emperor penguins behave cooperatively to escape the cold winds that are often as chilly as -62 degrees Celsius. They huddle together to keep their bodies warm.
- Many species of fish and insects in Antarctica have special chemicals due to a genetic mutation that acts like an anti-freeze. This ensures they don’t become frozen in harsh conditions.
- Birds’ feathers are waterproof and downy to keep them warm.
- Many animals choose to leave Antarctica in winter – between June and August – as the conditions become too much to bear.
Getting around on the ice
- Despite the sheer weight of seals, which can weigh up to 450 pounds (0.2 tons), they are surprisingly agile, and their flippers can support most of their weight.
What will happen to animals if Antarctica melts?
Global warming will continue to impact all life on Earth, but Antarctic animals like krill and the penguins that depend on them for food may be the most vulnerable to the changes it will impose. The impact of melting ice and rising sea levels on Antarctica may have grave consequences for even the most resilient animals.
The impact of human industrial activity is already unfolding in this remote, icy desert, showing a dire future for the region and its inhabitants. Greenland and Antarctica have lost over 6 trillion tons of ice since 1994, leading to a spike in sea levels worldwide. Temperatures are slowly increasing in parts of the Southern Ocean, and rising greenhouse gas emissions have exposed the waters to acidifying carbon dioxide. These changes and pollutants may not bode well for the many species that live in the region.
For the species that live in the region, the atmosphere is changing faster than most of Earth’s species have ever experienced. The alarming sea ice loss will transform habitats, expanding the seafloor and opening up waters. Species that depend on ice for food, breeding grounds, hunting areas, and shelter will find it harder to meet their physiological needs for survival.
Laternula elliptica are a species of underwater clams equipped to handle transient increases in temperature; however, long-term gains are more likely to threaten their numbers. Decreasing sea ice levels are predicted to impair species like krill; the fish rely on sea ice for food and shelter, so losing this invaluable resource could trigger one of two things: an exodus out of Antarctic waters or an epic annihilation. This would have repercussions for the predators who feed on krill, such as chinstrap and Adélie penguins. The fate of emperor penguins may be worse still. While the species don’t depend solely on krill to survive, they rely on sea ice and ice shelves as breeding grounds.
As is the case with most changes to an environment, some species will benefit. However, in any complex ecosystem, even the most minor adjustments have wide-reaching implications that have the potential to change the whole structure. The growth of another doesn’t remedy the decline of one species. Species that benefit from environmental changes may find that these benefits don’t last long, and continually rising temperatures may jeopardize more and more animals.
What animals are endangered in Antarctica?
An endangered animal is in danger of extinction, meaning it will die soon if further steps to protect it are not taken. Unfortunately, like in other parts of the world, some species in Antarctica are threatened with extinction.
The most endangered animal in Antarctica is the albatross. Most die because of oil spills or after being caught in plastic. They are also suffering because of climate change and loss of habitat.
Six out of eight species of penguins that live in Antarctica are also endangered. The other two species have not been included on the threatened with extinction list, but they are close to this.
Whales and seals
One of the reasons whales and seals in Antarctica are endangered is human intervention. They were almost killed entirely by people in the 19th century, and even after that brutal hunting stopped, numerous whales and seals were still hunted for commercial purposes.
For example, blue and sei whales are still threatened with extinction, even though their population is increasing. However, unlike whales, even though they were close to disappearing, seals’ numbers have increased, and they seem to be on the road to recovery.
Are there sharks in Antarctica?
No – the cold waters of the Antarctic are inhospitable to sharks, who would struggle to keep their metabolism and energy levels high enough to keep moving.
What is the most dangerous animal in Antarctica?
Leopard seals are perhaps the most fierce predators in Antarctica, and their powerful jaws and long teeth make them feared hunters!
What eats a penguin?
In water, penguins are threatened by leopard seals, fur seals, sea lions, sharks, and killer whales.
On land, they can be attacked by foxes, snakes, lizards, and dogs, while some other animals threaten eggs and chicks in the case of species, not in the Antarctic regions.
Interesting facts about animals that live in Antarctica
- The fastest penguin in Antarctica is the gentoo penguin, which can swim up to 22 miles per hour ca. 35 km/h).
- Leopard seals live to 26 years old.
- Weddel seals can spend almost one hour and a half underwater.
- The largest insect species in Antarctica is The Belgica Antarctica, which is 0.5 inches (1.27 cm).
- The snowy sheathbill is the only land bird local to the Antarctic continent.
- Albatrosses come to land just for breeding. They spend 80% of their life in the water.
- Penguins can live up to 60 years.
- Twenty-five species of penguins lived in the Antarctic millions of years ago. Their fossils have been found across the continent.
- Leopard seals like to play with their prey when they’re not hungry.
- Ants can be found on all other continents except Antarctica.