Cannibalism and Infectious Disease: Friends or Foes?
Cannibalism occurs in a majority of both carnivorous and noncarnivorous animal taxa from invertebrates to mammals. Similarly, infectious parasites are ubiquitous in nature. Thus, interactions between cannibalism and disease occur regularly. While some adaptive benefits of cannibalism are clear, the prevailing view is that the risk of parasite transmission due to cannibalism would increase disease spread and, thus, limit the evolutionary extent of cannibalism throughout the animal kingdom. In contrast, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the other half of the interaction between cannibalism and disease, that is, how cannibalism affects parasites. Here we examine the interaction between cannibalism and parasites and show how advances across independent lines of research suggest that cannibalism can also reduce the prevalence of parasites and, thus, infection risk for cannibals. Cannibalism does this by both directly killing parasites in infected victims and by reducing the number of susceptible hosts, often enhanced by the stage-structured nature of cannibalism and infection. While the well-established view that disease should limit cannibalism has held sway, we present theory and examples from a synthesis of the literature showing how cannibalism may also limit disease and highlight key areas where conceptual and empirical work is needed to resolve this debate.