Summary: Disease transmission by cannibalism: rare
event or common occurrence?
Volker H. W. Rudolf * and Janis Antonovics
Department of Biology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904, USA
Cannibalism has been documented as a possible disease transmission route in several species, including
humans. However, the dynamics resulting from this type of disease transmission are not well understood.
Using a theoretical model, we explore how cannibalism (i.e. killing and consumption of dead conspecifics)
and intraspecific necrophagy (i.e. consumption of dead conspecifics) affect hostpathogen dynamics. We
show that group cannibalism, i.e. shared consumption of victims, is a necessary condition for disease
spread by cannibalism in the absence of alternative transmission modes. Thus, endemic diseases
transmitted predominantly by cannibalism are likely to be rare, except in social organisms that share
conspecific prey. These results are consistent with a review of the literature showing that diseases
transmitted by cannibalism are infrequent in animals, even though both cannibalism and trophic
transmission are very common.
Keywords: hostpathogen dynamics; vertical transmission; spongiform encephalopathy;
social organization; prion disease; Kuru
It is now realized that cannibalism is very widespread in the
animal kingdom and is a major mortality factor in the
biology of numerous species (Fox 1975; Polis 1981; Elgar &