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Genetic documentation of filial cannibalism in nature.

  • Author(s): DeWoody, JA
  • Fletcher, DE
  • Wilkins, SD
  • Avise, JC
  • et al.

Cannibalism is widespread in natural populations of fishes, where the stomachs of adults frequently contain conspecific juveniles. Furthermore, field observations suggest that guardian males routinely eat offspring from their own nests. However, recent genetic paternity analyses have shown that fish nests often contain embryos not sired by the nest-tending male (because of cuckoldry events, egg thievery, or nest piracy). Such findings, coupled with the fact that several fish species have known capabilities for distinguishing kin from nonkin, raise the possibility that cannibalism by guardian males is directed primarily or exclusively toward unrelated embryos in their nests. Here, we test this hypothesis by collecting freshly cannibalized embryos from the stomachs of several nest-tending darter and sunfish males in nature and determining their genetic parentage by using polymorphic microsatellite markers. Our molecular results clearly indicate that guardian males do indeed consume their own genetic offspring, even when unrelated (foster) embryos are present within the nest. These data provide genetic documentation of filial cannibalism in nature. Furthermore, they suggest that the phenomenon may result, at least in part, from an inability of guardians to differentiate between kin and nonkin within their own nests.

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