The ecology and evolution of numerous organisms may be strongly influenced by cannibalism, the killing and consumption of all or part of an individual of the same species. This phenomenon has been documented in a diversity of taxa in a variety of habitats, including bacteria, octopus, dinosaurs, and humans. Cannibalism occurs in a broad array of ecological contexts and has played a strong role in the evolution of parental care and alternative mating systems. Acts of cannibalism can potentially incur significant costs, such as impairing a cannibal's inclusive fitness by consuming close relatives. Despite such potential disadvantages, cannibalism can also be adaptive, and has even led to the evolution of specialized morphologies (cannibalistic polyphenism) in individuals of some species.
The causes and consequences of cannibalism can be explored in many ways. The dynamic nature of this behavior is strongly influenced by ecological, social, and psychological contexts. Individual morphology, survival, and evolutionary fitness are modified by cannibalistic actions and choices. Populations subject to density-dependent regulation, as well as entire ecological communities, can be strongly influenced by cannibalism. Elucidation of selective factors leading to the evolution of this behavior remains an active field of scientific investigation.
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