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Penguin-cams catch birds snacking on unusual prey

If "Jaws" were cute, it would play out like this fascinating underwater footage of "jellyvore" penguins.

Penguins are known to eat fish, squid and krill, but scientists have discovered some of the aquatic birds also go for a mushier sort of food: jellyfish. The findings come as a surprise since most researchers believed penguins didn't purposefully indulge in jellyfish and their ilk.

The scientists call jellyfish and other gelatinous ocean-dwelling critters "gelata." The teach of global researchers led by Jean-Baptiste Thiebot, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo, equipped 106 penguins with tiny video cameras and recorded their hunting exploits. The 350 hours of footage showed almost 200 attacks on gelata. 

The study covers four different penguin species, Adelie, Magellanic, yellow-eyed and little penguins. Gelatinous animals are relatively low in calories and the researchers estimate they cover only 1 to 2 percent of the aquatic birds' daily energy needs, which makes jellyfish more of a penguin snack food.

The videos show penguins targeting carnivorous gelata while skipping on the opportunity to eat vegetarian gelata species. The footage is fascinating to watch, giving an underwater view from the penguins' backs as they attack and munch their prey. It plays out like a much cuddlier version of "Jaws."

Researchers published the findings online this week in the Ecological Society of America's Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal with the title "Jellyfish and other gelata as food for four penguin species – insights from predator-borne videos."

In late 2016, researchers shared an earlier hint at this jellyvore habit when the World Wide Fund for Nature released footage of Adelie penguins hunting down "jellyfish with prominent gonads." This latest study shows those gelata meals weren't merely an aberration, but rather a normal part of the penguin diet.