“It was a hot summer afternoon and I was returning from field after nearly 13 hours of grueling work. My mind wandered, and so did my gaze. I was looking out on a water body with no particular thought in mind, when I saw it. A pond heron was standing with a catch. This was a great moment to capture, I thought it would be a great predator-prey moment and whizzed out my camera, thinking that the bird was holding a big fish. I clicked and zoomed in on my camera, to see whether my prediction was true. What followed next was abject shock. The pond heron was feeding on a pond heron, one of its own kind! This was absurd and out of this world. I had commonly seen pond herons carrying common prey like frog or fish, but here I stood, numbed, and amazed. I was keen to know what it would do next, and within fifteen minutes, the pond heron swallowed its “unrealistic catch”. The image stuck with me, embedded in my mind forever. I did not know whether the bird had killed the victim pond heron or was eating dead one. I pondered over this for times to come, it was after all, a shocking anomaly.
In my eight years of wildlife photography I have often seen odd moments in odd hours that set me thinking. But this was something unfathomable, something abject and cruel, yet practical in its own way. I was reminded that the only law of nature that prevailed was, “Survival of the Fittest.”
Aameesh Patel’s experience is not a new one. To the human taste, a species feeding on its own kind may seem outright inhuman (they are not humans, after all!). The fact of the matter is that animal cannibalism is a well-recognized phenomenon in the wild. One would think that such incidences are few and far between, the truth is miles away from this. Around 140 different species show cannibalistic tendencies under various conditions. More commonly occurring amongst lower vertebrates and invertebrates, cannibalism is known to occur in birds and mammals too, especially when the going gets tough.
What is Species Cannibalism?
As __ rightly pointed out, he did not know whether the pond heron had killed its kind, or was just feasting on what it chances upon. Cannibalism is known to be of two types.
- Active Cannibalism: The predator actively hunts and kills its own kind, and then consumes it.
- Passive Cannibalism: The individual / group feeds on already dead members of their own species
Cannibalism is generally an outcome of shortage of resources, particularly food.
Is cannibalism always bad?
We would generally look upon cannibalism as the worst form of cruelty. But nature operates by her own distinct set of laws, and not the human lens. Opposed to our beliefs and feelings, cannibalistic behaviors can prove progressive at an umbrella level, in particular situations. The objective of nature is to make species as a whole proliferate and sustain, individual specimens may be sacrificed in this larger quest. One can surmise that the overall good of a species seems to be of a higher priority than the well-being of single individual. Of course, the law of “Survival of the Fittest” applies here, and the weakest will perish. Sometimes, this perishing happens at the hands of one’s very own kind.
- Helps optimize energy and increases chances of survival: Spotted hyenas are known to be passive cannibals, feeding on the dead in the pack. Meat that is available nearby, and already dead, is like a ready meal served on a platter, no efforts involved. Who doesn’t like that! This may help conserve the energy that the pack would otherwise need to hunt and bring down another prey. Optimization of resources is a way of nature working, and energy and efforts for hunting is one of the greatest exertions that must be optimized to increase survival chances.
- Population control: Cannibalism is a natural way of controlling uncontrolled increasing populations. For example, mice and rates have been known to turn cannibalistic when kept in cramped conditions. While the predator-prey relationship is the primary population control measure to prevent an ecological imbalance, cannibalism too has been observed in the wild.
- Stronger gene pool: When food is scarce, cannibalism may become a way of life. After all, the gene pool of the species must subsist, and that too only the strong genes. For example, young birds of prey often kill and sometimes eat weaker nestlings. It is a way of optimizing the food available, by strengthening the stronger individuals and eliminating the weak.
Now we know why the pond heron acted opportunistically, and made the most of a ready-meal for the day. Nature is highly practical, with clearly laid out objectives, and ways and means to achieve those. More than anything else, it is the “greater good of the collective” than the “egos of individuals” that nature wishes to propagate.
Did you know?
The term “cannibal” originates from the name of an island race called the Cannibals. This warrior tribe had the habit of feasting on their enemies killed or captured in battle.
By Aameesh Patel & Rhucha Kulkarni
Pic credit: Aameesh Patel