Cannibalism is a gruesome illustration of Darwinism at the apex of desperate times. While one might immediately think of the fictitious Doctor Hannibal Lector – a serial killer of considerable means, who dined in elegance on the entrails of his victims – and cast off cannibalism as a virtue of the insane, consider the events that unfolded in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, during the winter of 1609-1610. Low on supplies and caught in a feud with Powhatan Indians that left the early colonists cut-off from outside assistance, the colonists ate their domesticated animals – dogs, cats, horses – then mice, snakes, and rats. Finally, after running out of everything edible, the colonists first dug up and ate the dead – then turned on each other.
In the animal world, competition for food can foment cannibalistic behavior. For marine biologists in the United States, an unusual combination of climate change and overfishing caused them to bear witness to the transformation of lobsters into cannibals. Using a camera trap with a live lobster as bait off the coast of Maine, scientist Noah Oppenheim became the first scientist to observe the cannibalistic behavior.
The result: instead of observing fish coming in to inspect the trap and grab the lobster – as was observed in a similar experiment in 1992 – Oppenheim captured video of an adult lobster invading the trap and cutting-open the bait lobster. Though it is well-known that lobsters will attack each other in captivity – just head to the lobster tank at virtually every grocery store in the United States and watch the crustaceans duke it out for your viewing pleasure – Oppenheim reported drastically increased instances of cannibalism in the wild. During repeat experiments, Oppenheim observed that juvenile lobsters were 90 percent more likely to be eaten by their own kind than by a fish of any type.
According to Oppenheim, rising water temperatures brought about by climate change contribute to this behavior, saying, “As the water temperatures elevate, lobsters both become more fecund. They reproduce more frequently and with larger broods and they grow more rapidly. If we enjoy eating lobsters perhaps other lobsters enjoy eating lobsters too.”
Among other factors is overfishing, which has decimated the populations of the lobster’s natural predators. This has led to a population explosion of lobsters, which has negatively impacted commercial fishermen by driving down the market price per pound to $2.72 due to the massive hauls of the crustacean to shore.