Cannibal Animals: 10 Animals That Eat Their Own Kind | BBC Wildlife

Cannibalism—eating an individual of the same species as food—is often not a good idea, and not just because of our own human morality. It can lead to the spread of some very nasty diseases, as well as the evolutionary cost of potentially eating your own relatives.

However, it is not as rare as you might think. In fact, it has been recorded in more than 1,500 species, and as with all behaviors, there is often a good evolutionary reason behind it. These reasons are diverse and cannibalism can take different forms, read on to learn more.


10 Examples of Cannabilism in the Animal Kingdom

1. Chimpanzees (Pan cavemen)

Alpha male chimpanzee, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda. © Marc Guitard/Getty

Although primarily herbivorous, chimpanzees like to eat meat occasionally, hunting monkeys and forest pigs. However, their taste may be even closer to home. We may not like to think of our closest animal relatives indulging in something so horrific, but they also sometimes feed on their own.

This mainly occurs in the form of eating newborn babies. Male chimpanzees are thought to do this when they don’t think they are the father, to open up breeding opportunities for new females and to outnumber other males.

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2. Lions (panthera leo)

Male lion standing in long grass, Masai Mara, Kenya.

Male lion standing in long grass, Masai Mara, Kenya. © James Warwick/Getty

Another species that kills babies of its own kind is the lion. When a new male takes over a troop, he will usually kill all existing cubs, as he doesn’t want to become a “stepfather,” and invest resources in cubs that are not his. It also means he can breed faster with the mothers. Sometimes, but not always, there is cannibalism.

3. Hippopotamus (hippopotamus amphibius)

Hippo in Chobe National Park

Hippopotamus in Chobe National Park, Botswana. © Winfried Wisniewski/Getty

Hippos are another species that occasionally commit this “strategic infanticide.” However, they are not known to eat the babies. Instead, they were recorded eating the corpses of other adults. This is especially surprising because they are mainly herbivores. Scientists suspect that this behavior stems from extreme need, while other, safer foods are scarce.

4. Hamsters (Cricetidae Family)

European hamster (Cricetus cricetus), sitting upright in a meadow, Austria.

European hamster sits upright in a meadow, Austria. © Stefan Huwiler/Getty

Yes, that’s right, even your cute little pet hamster is capable of cannibalism. Mothers are known to sometimes eat their own newborn babies, both in captivity and in the wild. They are thought to only do this if they are deficient in important vitamins and minerals. Like hippos, it’s a horrifying solution to a problem of extreme scarcity. Sometimes the cost of damaging your own growing success is worth the benefits of a meal.

5. Crab Spiders (Family Thomisidae)

A crab spider on blue flag iris

A crab spider on blue flag iris. © Brian Lasenby/Getty

So far we’ve talked about animals eating their own babies, but sometimes it happens the other way around. To ensure the survival of her offspring, a female crab spider will offer her own body as a meal. This behavior is known as matriphagy and is, in fact, a fairly widely developed strategy for ensuring that your genes are passed on successfully. It is mainly practiced by insects and arachnids.

6. Caecilians (Gymnophiona Order)

Ringed caecilian (Siphonops annulatus).

Ringed caecilian (Siphonops annulatus). © Luis Espin/Getty

Apart from spiders and insects, there is another species that also practices matriphagy – caecilians. These elusive underground creatures are actually amphibians without limbs. Unlike the crab spiders, the cost of their cannibalism is not death, as they produce a special outer layer of skin, rich in fat and nutrients, for their babies to eat. The fry will peel off this skin and eat it with specially adapted teeth, and the skin then grows back and is replaced every three days. This allows the young to grow very quickly.

7. Cane toads (Rijnlla marina)

A reed path under a street lamp, Queensland, Australia.  © Jason Edwards/Getty

A reed path under a street lamp, Queensland, Australia. © Jason Edwards/Getty

In addition to cannibalism between mothers and young, it can also occur between siblings. This is the case with cane toad tadpoles, where larger tadpoles will feast on their newly hatched younger siblings. This behavior is most commonly observed in Australia, where cane toads are an invasive and destructive species. Cannibalism is thought to be a response to competition within the species for resources, as they have no other competitors. Interestingly, the behavior reveals a case of rapid evolutionary adaptation, as Australian tadpoles matured much faster than their native South American counterparts. This reduces the risk of becoming a snack for their older siblings, as only small tadpoles are eaten.

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8. Praying Mantis (mantodea to order)

European praying mantis (Mantis religiosa).

European praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). © Paul Starosta/Getty

In perhaps one of the best-known examples of animal cannibalism, female praying mantises will often eat male praying mantises immediately after breeding. She will bite his head off first and then proceed to consume the rest of the body. This is known as ‘sexual cannibalism’ and is practiced not only by praying mantises, but also by many other insects and arachnids. This is thought to work to increase their fertility as the females that participate in it produce more eggs. While it may not look like it, it can also be beneficial (in an evolutionary sense) to the man.

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9. Black Widow Spiders (Latrodectus sex)

Southern black widow spider on web.  © spotwin/Getty

Southern black widow spider on web. © spotwin/Getty

Another animal that regularly exhibits sexual caniballism is the black widow spider. The females of this venomous arachnid genus will usually devour the much smaller males, sometimes halfway through mating. It is this fondness that inspired the name ‘widow’. Though they sometimes try to escape, men often accept their grim fate, or are even willing participants. In an act called “copulatory suicide,” some males will actually somersault into the jaws of the waiting females!

10. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus)

Polar bear.  © Justin Lo/Getty

Polar bear. © Justin Lo/Getty

In some cases, cannibalism can arise or increase in a previously rarely cannibalistic species in response to extreme environmental pressures. This is unfortunately the case for some polar bears. While cannibalism is not unheard of among these Arctic bears, it was once rare. However, in recent years, more and more cases of bear-on-bear attacks have been recorded, in which the loser is eaten after death.

This increase is believed to be due to the effect of climate change on their normal food supply and hunting activities. With the melting of the sea ice, they have fewer platforms to hunt, become malnourished and have to resort to eating their own kind.

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