10 Incredible Animals That Live in Antarctica

Emperor Penguin Colony
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As the southernmost continent, Antarctica is home to the South Pole and a fascinating population of animals specifically adapted to its harsh environment. Because of the cold and windy conditions, many local residents — like whales, penguins, and seals — rely on blubber, waterproof feathers, and unique circulatory systems to survive. Birds like the arctic tern and snow petrel have also evolved to defend themselves on land and hunt in the icy waters.

Here are 10 of the most incredible animals that call Antarctica home.

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Killer Whale

Killer whale jumping out of the water.

Martin Ruegner / Getty Images 

Also known as orcas, killer whales are one of the most widely recognized species in Antarctica. Found in oceans around the world, these whales are uniquely suited to the icy Antarctic waters and have a layer of blubber that helps them maintain their body heat while diving to depths over 325 feet.

These beautiful animals also stay warm by traveling in pods and can swim up to 30 miles per hour thanks to their hydrodynamic structure, dorsal fin, and pectoral flippers. Echolocation enables them to communicate with one another and find food.

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Emperor Penguin

Emperor penguins on ice in Antarctica.

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Emperor penguins are the largest penguins and among the most charismatic because of their unique breeding habits. After laying a single egg, the female passes it to her mate for incubation and goes out looking for food — sometimes traveling 50 miles to the ocean. During this time, the male fasts for more than 100 days while incubating their egg and awaiting the female’s return.

In the water, emperor penguins can dive up to 1,850 feet (the deepest of any bird), and can stay underwater for longer than 20 minutes. On land, the birds stay warm by huddling together in groups.

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Elephant Seal

Two elephant seals fighting on shore in Antarctica.

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As the largest seals on earth, male elephant seals grow to about 13 feet and 4,500 pounds. They can dive up to about 8,000 feet deep, and spend about 90% of their lives hunting for fish, squid, sharks, and other prey underwater. 

This is facilitated in part by their unique circulatory system that diverts blood away from their skin and to their heart, lungs, and brain. Elephant seals also have the ability to store low-oxygen blood during dives, and rely on bradycardia, wherein their heart rate slows down to manage their oxygen levels.

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Antarctic Krill

Krill swimming in Antarctic waters.

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The antarctic krill has a population density around 280 to 850 krill per cubic foot, making it one of the most abundant species on Earth and an important source of food for larger animals in Antarctica. According to a study published in the journal Deep-Sea Research, it’s estimated there are over 400 million U.S. tons of antarctic krill in the waters surrounding the South Pole.

Because of this, antarctic krill is a keystone species in the region — meaning that without it, food webs in the Southern Ocean would collapse. The tiny crustaceans are mostly transparent with some orange to red coloration punctuated with large black eyes.

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Leopard Seal

Leopard seal lying on ice with water in background.

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Like penguins and other animals that live in Antarctica, leopard seals have thick blubber to retain body heat. Their bodies are also streamlined and extremely muscular, which helps them swim up to 24 miles per hour and dive up to depths around 250 feet to capture their prey — often krill, fish, penguins, and, sometimes, other seals. 

What’s more, leopard seals have nostrils that can be closed to keep water out when they’re diving. Other helpful adaptations include large eyes to maximize light intake underwater and whiskers that help them sense movement when hunting. 

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Snow Petrel

Snow petrel flying low over water in Antarctica.

Peter Orr Photography / Getty Images

Snow petrels are medium-sized birds — between about 11 and 16 inches — that have the ability to nest in crevices. This lets them keep out of the cold wind and helps them stay away from skuas and other predators. The birds can also survive on a wide variety of food — everything from krill, fish, and squid, to animal carcasses and seal placenta. 

While snow petrels typically stay near the water’s surface, they are excellent divers and also have oily, waterproof feathers that let them fly when wet. Their webbed feet also prevent them from slipping on the ice and make it easier to swim when necessary.

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Chinstrap Penguin

Chinstrap penguin jumping out of water in Antarctica.

 Paul Souders / Getty Images

Growing to only about 30 inches in length, chinstrap penguins are small but mighty. Not only are they the most aggressive penguins, chinstraps typically swim up to 50 miles off the shore to feed on krill, as well as some fish, shrimp, and squid. This is possible thanks to their thick blubber and intricate system of blood vessels that helps them retain heat, as well as their tightly packed feathers that make them waterproof. When in the water, their number one predator is the leopard seal, and on land they’re susceptible to other predators like the southern giant petrel. 

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Wandering Albatross

Wandering albatross getting ready to fly.

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The wandering albatross is a large bird with a remarkable 11-foot wingspan. Their huge size lets them glide for hours without the need to land or, in some cases, flap their wings. The birds have also adapted to life in Antarctica with their ability to drink seawater and excrete excess salt from their body from tubes along the side of their beaks. The wandering albatross’s unique beak structure features nostrils that help them smell prey from miles away. Their nostrils also close to prevent water from entering while they swim and dive.

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Weddell Seal

Weddell seal resting on snow-covered shoreline.

Paul Souders / Getty Images 

Weddell seals have smooth, blubber-covered bodies that allow them to dive to depths up to 2,000 feet and stay underwater for up to 45 minutes. This unique feature, combined with whiskers and large eyes, help them hunt for fish and other marine life. 

The animal’s reproductive systems are also adapted to Antarctica’s harsh environment. Embryos go into hibernation, allowing them to develop and be born at the ideal time of year — summer. Once pups are born, they enjoy milk with a fat content of 60% — among the highest of any mammal — which allows them to develop quickly before winter begins.

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Arctic Tern

Arctic tern resting on sea ice.

 Paul Souders / Getty Images

Arctic terns are medium-sized birds that migrate from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Traveling around 25,000 miles every year, they spend winters — or southern summers — in Antarctica. The birds can live between 15 and 30 years, and, like snow petrels, can grow up to about 15 inches in size. 

To adapt to their migratory habits and icy conditions, arctic terns have a high metabolic rate and long, angular wings that let them fly longer distances than most birds. They dine mainly on fish, insects, and small marine invertebrates, and build shallow nests on the ground as part of a colony.

How Do Animals Survive Antarctic Conditions?

Animals that live in Antarctica have special adaptations that enable them to survive in such a harsh, cold climate. These include:

  • Water-repellant feathers that allow birds like the penguin and snow petrel to dive and swim easily to find food
  • Wings that have shrunken into pseudo-fins, as is the case with the penguin
  • An ultra-thick layer of fat under the skin—aka "blubber"—that keeps mammals like whales, seals, and walruses warm, helps them store energy, and improves their buoyancy
  • Reducing body size—"downsizing"—to cope with little to no food for long periods of winter, as exemplified by Antarctic krill
View Article Sources
  1. Atkinson, A., et al. "A Re-Appraisal of the Total Biomass and Annual Production of Antarctic Krill." Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, vol. 56, no. 5, 2009, pp. 727-740, doi:10.1016/j.dsr.2008.12.007