Friends For Dinner: Why Some Animals Become Cannibals

Motivations for eat your own kind range from mind-controlling parasites to starvation.

Baby Eaters

It isn’t always desperation that drives animal to eat their own. (See "The Flesh-Eaters: 5 Cannibalistic Animals.")

Take the African lion. Alison Dunn, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Leeds in the U.K., says when a young male lion takes over a pride from an older male, it will kill and sometimes cannibalize some of the cubs.

There's a strategy behind this: The females go back into estrus, so the males “get to mate with them and have their own babies," Dunn says. (Also see "Rare Picture: Hippo Seen Eating Hippo—and More Cannibals.")

Cannibalizing young is normal among the tiny shrimp Gammarus duebeni—especially when they're infected with a mind-controlling parasite called Pleistophora mulleri.

The parasites steal food from the shrimp, causing the ravenous hosts to eat twice as many of their own kind as usual, says Dunn, who co-authored a study on the bizarre phenomenon.

The infected shrimp also turn white and sluggish, making them look even more like zombies. (Related: "Meet 5 'Zombie' Parasites That Mind-Control Their Hosts.")

Another freeloader with a cannibalistic connection is the twisted wing parasite, says Katy Prudic, an entomologist at University of Arizona. 

Female twisted wing parasites—which are eyeless and legless—live their whole lives inside their host, such as a bee or a wasp. 

After being inseminated, the mother lay eggs “basically inside herself,” which also hatch inside her and are thought to "eat her body from the inside out" before escaping into the next host, Prudic says. 

Fine young cannibals, indeed. 

You Could At Least Be My Dinner First

Many of us have heard about sexual cannibalism among spiders and praying mantises, which is a sort of “glorified nuptial gift,” Prudic says. (Related: "Surprise! Male Spiders Eat Females, Too.")

“The female needs more energy than the environment can provide. So the male, in exchange for siring her offspring,” sacrifices himself as a snack.

But sweet little butterflies?

Usually they don't eat their own kind, but it does happen. 

For instance, caterpillar larvae that hatch and don't find enough food “chow through anything, and that includes eggs of their siblings,” she adds. (Also see "Praying Mantises Falling Victim to Sex Cannibal.")

So for butterflies, cannibalism is the result of a “low-resource, high-density situation.” 

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Tiger salamander larvae can become cannibals in crowded conditions. But it’s not for lack of food.

Larvae can come in different varieties, or "morphs"—including one that's born cannibalistic. This morph is bigger than the other types: “It’s got bigger jaws, bigger body, bigger everything —it’s a serious investment. They are committed to being cannibals,” Prudic says.

Interestingly, the cannibal morphs will avoid eating their kin.

“If you can imagine you ate a complete stranger, you'd get a meal and you'd remove a competitor from the situation,” says the University of Leeds' Dunn.

"But if you accidentally ate your siblings or offspring, you had just killed a relative carrying your own genes. That would be a really daft idea.” 

That’s one reasons humans don’t do it…right? Err...

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