Theory of parental care evolution predicts that a parent should invest more in a brood when its fitness value is greater than alternative investments such as the parent's own survivorship or future broods. In fish, filial cannibalism (eating one's own offspring) is widespread and represents a challenge to parental care evolution. In this study, I investigated filial cannibalism in bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus). Bluegill are characterized by alternative mating tactics referred to as "parentals" and "cuckolders". Parentals delay maturation, construct nests, court females and provide sole parental care for the developing offspring. Cuckolders mature precociously and parasitize parentals using two tactics called "sneakers" and "satellites". I found that parentals that obtained fewer eggs during spawning appeared more likely to completely cannibalize their brood (total filial cannibalism:P=0.07), regardless of their condition. Among parentals that provided care, partial cannibalism was greater during the egg phase as compared to the fry phase of care, but it was unrelated to brood size. Throughout the care period, parentals in better condition were less likely to partially cannibalize their brood, indicating that parentals use cannibalism to replenish energy reserves. Independent of condition, parentals that were cuckolded more were more likely to eat part of their brood. This relationship was evident only after the eggs had hatched, which is consistent with data showing that parentals can use olfactory cues produced by fry but not eggs to assess their paternity. This latter result proposes that parentals may be selectively culling cuckolder offspring from their nest. These data provide empirical support for parental care theory, and the first evidence for the importance of paternity on cannibalistic behavior.
Nets used for capture and observations