Cannibals and even supercannibals of the animal kingdom attack their own kind when they are feeling 'hangry', a scientist says.
Scientists have taken a deep dive into what it takes to push creatures into snacking on their own species, and how humans are proof it can spread disease like wildfire.
University of California entomologist Jay Rosenheim has led a study on cannibalism which despite focusing on certain animals, a tribe in New Guinea could not be ignored.
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During the 1950s, the Fore people of New Guinea cooked and ate the flesh of dead relatives, even their contaminated brain tissue. As a result they became ravaged by a rare and fatal brain disease called kuru.
It was only when they decided to stop partaking in the ritual that the disease ceased to spread.
Jay notes that although the Fore people are probably the most famous cannibals to have been hit by disease, they are far from the only ones to have suffered horrific side effects.
He adds that making a meal out of offspring is also not the best way to secure your species' survival.
Jay said: “From an evolutionary perspective, the last thing you want to do is eat your offspring.”
Big-eyed bugs however use cannibalism deliberately to limit their population sizes, devouring their own eggs when there are too many.
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Jay has watched cannibalism unravel before him in the shape of praying mantises, and he said: “I’ve seen one female chew the leg off another and then the female who lost the leg somehow manages to kill the other one.”
Taking on an animal with the exact same weapons as you hardly guarantees a good meal.
Erica Wildy, an ecologist at California State University has also become an expert on cannibalism which while being far from ideal, she admits if you're starving it can prove to be a life-saving option.
In her own work, she found that hunger makes long-toed salamander larvae more likely see one another as a snack.
Just as humans become irritable when they haven't eaten as, Jay says animals can also feel "hangry" – a mixture of hunger and anger – as their hormones spike in reaction to overpopulation and a lack of food.
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The study also looks at how some young amphibians such as tiger salamanders and spadefoot toads turn into supercannibals in response to a pond crowded with larvae.
Much like mites, fish and fruit flies, some tadpoles bulk up as they transition into a “cannibal morph” with sprouting gaping jaws studded with pseudofangs.
Jay concluded: “When we think of cannibalism in human populations, we recoil but cannibalism is one of the key contributors to balancing out nature.”
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