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'Cannibalism' is defined as the act of any animal consuming members of its own type or kind, including the consumption of mates. The definition is good enough to make one feel squeamish. Though rampant in many animal species, it is the intrigue of cannibalism that arouses a lot of curiosity among us. This article sheds some light on the mystery that is 'cannibalism'.

Cannibalistic Animal Behavior
When we talk about something that defies the limits of decadence, humans are bound to come into the picture. The word 'cannibalism' finds its origins in Spanish. The Carib people, a West Indian tribe once infamous for their practice of cannibalism, were called Caníbales by the Spaniards, thus establishing a human connect. Thankfully, sanity prevailed and cannibalism is now considered as a criminal activity, barring a few South Pacific islands.

Animals, on the other hand, have a completely different perspective towards cannibalism. We often think of food shortage as the main reason behind it, but we couldn't be more wrong. Several species indulging in cannibalism do it with a specific purpose in mind. For instance, felines do it to garner female attention, whereas golden eagles do it for reasons of personal survival. All reasons apart, there are about 1500 species indulging in some type of cannibalism.

Survival Cannibalism

From the moment they are born in the wild, the animals begin their struggle for survival. They start by eliminating their siblings, thus ensuring themselves of an extra helping of food. Cannibalism is also used to display dominance over other species at times.

Often, human interference is also seen as a possible cause of disturbance in the ecological balance. As we encroach on to their habitat, animals in the wild find it tougher to search for food, sometimes forcing them to indulge in cannibalism.

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The great white sharks are an example of creatures indulging in cannibalism to establish dominance. Often, peculiar bite marks are observed on smaller white sharks that are found dead, indicating the involvement of bigger sharks.

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The golden eagle usually lays two eggs that hatch a few days apart. The one that hatches first turns out to be the stronger one, grabbing on to most of the feed that comes their way. In cases of extreme food shortage, the stronger chick does not hesitate in making a meal out of its weaker sibling.

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Spotted hyena cubs are an antithesis of cute, furry creatures, even though their appearance may lead you to believe otherwise. Born ferocious, they start practicing their hunting skills on their brothers and sisters. The timid ones are mostly mauled to death, even as the adults try to separate them. This prepares the young ones to develop leadership qualities, and keeps the population in check as well.

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Polar bears have been observed to possess cannibalistic tendencies, but of late, it has been forced upon them, all thanks to the climate change. The melting of the sea ice leaves them helpless on islands for a prolonged time period, with zero access to food. In desperation, they turn to consuming their offspring in order to aid survival.

Sexual Cannibalism

Zoology defines sexual cannibalism as the consumption of a mate before, during or after copulation. It is girl power all the way, as it is the female who is responsible for it most of the time. Scientists have come up with varied explanations (some conflicting ones as well) to justify the existence of sexual cannibalism. It occurs rarely when compared to survival cannibalism, and is mostly found in spiders and scorpions.

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Any discussion on sexual cannibalism is incomplete without the mention of the praying mantis. When the female mates on an empty stomach, she happily bites off her mate's head to kill those hunger pangs. However, this doesn't happen as often as it is portrayed to be. Praying mantises are also known to indulge in elaborate courtship rituals, with the males taking considerable efforts to woo the lady. In other instances, the males have been observed to be prudent enough to avoid courting a hungry lady.

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The black widow spider gets her name because of the very act of sexual cannibalism. Along with the redback spider, these girls are known to take advantage of their superior size and turn their mate into dinner. But here comes an interesting twist. Unlike the praying mantis, these male spiders readily sacrifice their lives to gain an advantage or two. Males that readily become a meal end up fertilizing more eggs. Also, having consumed a male, the female is known to reject future alliances. Talk about being turned off!

Filial Cannibalism

Filial cannibalism is when the parents consume their young ones, or when the adults eat up members of their own species. The causes of filial cannibalism remain shrouded in mystery. In filial cannibalism, the offspring can be gobbled up entirely, or in part. The consumption of the entire brood delivers them from parenting duties as they soon get frisky and give birth to a healthier set of progeny. Interestingly, filial cannibalism has quite a few advantages. Species who are party to this act mainly do it with the purpose of quickly gaining nutrients. It is also seen as a way to get rid of unhealthy offspring or to free a female of her parenting duties in order to make her available for mating.

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It is commonly observed in teleost fish families, where the eggs are eaten for their nutritive value, and are seen as an immediate source of energy. It is sometimes done to declutter an unmanageable brood.

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The female praying mantis is a seasoned cannibal, known to feast on her mate, post copulation. Mommy dearest also doesn't hesitate to chomp on her eggs, more so if she has spent a lot of time fasting to protect them. It is hard to find a bigger contradiction in the natural world.

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It is a known fact that lions are the most aggressive among all other felines. It is also true that the lion devours cubs to get female attention. The idea behind this is to spread their progeny, and eliminating those belonging to others. Killing the cubs also presents them an opportunity to mate, especially when available partners are hard to find.

Intrauterine Cannibalism

Oophagy or intrauterine cannibalism can be called egg eating in simple words. While the embryo undergoes development, it starts eating the unfertilized eggs, thus nourishing itself. Adelphophagy is slightly different, as this is where the stronger embryo makes a meal of the weaker embryo.

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The endangered sand tiger sharks are one of those deceptively calm sharks that are not known to attack humans unnecessarily. To find proof of their aggressiveness, you must go back to their embryonic stage. These sharks eat up their brothers or sisters, having already developed sharp teeth along with a good appetite. This leads to the birth of only two pups, despite the presence of several eggs.

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The shortfin mako shark feasts on the eggs as it develops, thanks again to their sharp teeth. Nutrition happens to be the objective here as well.

The slightest mention of cannibalism manages to elicit outraged reactions every single time. However, it is not against the natural scheme of things, in cases where animals are involved, mind you. Whatever the cause, cannibalism among animals is here to stay for a long, long time to come.