Pathogens as a factor limiting the spread of cannibalism in tiger salamanders

David W. Pfennig, Michael L G Loeb, James Collins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


Intraspecific predation is taxonomically widespread, but few species routinely prey on conspecifics. This is surprising as conspecifics could be a valuable resource for animals limited by food. A potential cost of cannibalism that has been largely unexplored is that it may enhance the risk of acquiring debilitating pathogens or toxins from conspecifics. We examined how pathogens affect variation in the incidence of cannibalism in tiger salamander larvae (Ambystoma tigrinum nebulosum), which occur as two environmentally-induced morphs, typicals and cannibals. Salamanders from one population were more likely than those in another to develop into cannibals, even when reared under identical conditions. Variation in the propensity to become a cannibal may be caused by variation in pathogen density. In the population with cannibals at low frequency, bacterial blooms in late summer correlated with massive die-offs of salamanders. The frequency of cannibals correlated significantly negatively with bacterial density in ten different natural lakes. In the laboratory, cannibals exposed to a diseased conspecific always preyed on the sick animal. As a result, cannibals wre more likely to acquire and die from disease than were typicals that were similarly exposed, or cannibals that were exposed to healthy conspecifics. Since conspecifics often share lethal pathogens, enhanced risk of disease may explain why cannibalism is generally infrequent. Pathogens may constrain not only the tendency to be behaviorally cannibalistic, but also the propensity to develop specialized cannibal morphologies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-166
Number of pages6
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1991


  • Adaptive plasticity
  • Cannibalism
  • Mass mortality
  • Pathogens
  • Trophic polymorphism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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