A photographer in Texas has captured the moment a huge alligator chows down on a smaller member of its own species.
Photographer Brad Streets was first drawn to the scene when he spotted some guts floating in the waters of Brazos Bend State Park in Needville, Texas. When he laid eyes on the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), he thought it was chomping on a bird. He soon realized it was munching on something much more familiar.
“I was very excited to be seeing nature at work in this way,” Streets told the Daily Mail.
While the scene might seem rather shocking, cannibalism isn’t all that rare in the alligator world. In fact, one in 16 gators will be eaten by their own kind, many by rather unaffectionate family members.
But why on Earth would they do this?
Well, it basically acts as a method of population control. If food is running low, there’s not enough to go around. Therefore, older, stronger alligators will take it upon themselves to weed out the weaker members of the population, gaining a nutritious meal in the process. This reduces competition for food.
Back in the '80s, researchers decided to investigate this rather brutal behavior to see how often it occurs. They tagged baby alligators and then looked at the stomach contents of 267 adults. They found that at least 56 little alligators had fallen victim to their larger counterparts – one gator had 14 tags in its stomach. The researchers also found that the vast majority – 91 percent – of consumed alligators were no older than three.
Another instance in Florida.
If you’re feeling a little horrified, you'll be pleased to know that alligators aren’t the only creatures that engage in this behavior. Primates, rodents, birds, spiders, and fish will eat their young, which is known as filial cannibalism. Animals are more likely to cannibalize their own offspring – sometimes literally because they’re easier to catch – but they will eat strangers too.
Cannibalism actually serves a variety of purposes, from providing food and reducing competition to allowing an individual to gain reproductive dominance or even exact revenge. A group of chimpanzees has previously been witnessed killing and eating a former leader that had subjected them to tyranny in the past.
While cannibalism isn’t overly common in the animal kingdom, alligators certainly aren’t alone. They are much more likely to cannibalize others when food is scarce, and understanding how often they do so can help conservationists work out how best to protect them.