Challenging the Aggressive Spillover Hypothesis: Is Pre-Copulatory Sexual Cannibalism a Part of a Behavioural Syndrome?


  • Simona Kralj-Fišer,

    Corresponding author
    • Institute of Biology, Scientific Research Centre, Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia
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  • Jutta M. Schneider,

    1. Zoological Institute & Museum, Biozentrum Grindel, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
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  • Matjaž Kuntner

    1. Institute of Biology, Scientific Research Centre, Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia
    2. Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA
    3. College of Life Sciences, Hubei University, Wuhan, Hubei, China
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Simona Kralj-Fišer, Institute of Biology, Scientific Research Centre, Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Novi trg 2, P. O. Box 306, SI-1001 Ljubljana, Slovenia.



Pre-copulatory cannibalism – females devouring males during courtship – may bring no benefit to either sex. The ‘aggressive spillover hypothesis’ (ASH) posits that pre-copulatory cannibalism represents a spillover of female aggressiveness from the juvenile foraging context, when aggressiveness is advantageous, to the adult mating context, when aggressiveness may be non-adaptive or maladaptive. The ASH suggests that individuals exhibit limited plasticity in aggressive behaviours because they are genetically canalised for indiscriminate aggressiveness towards prey and conspecifics, including males. Hence, a tendency to employ pre-copulatory cannibalism is a part of the female aggression syndrome, an assertion generally accepted in the personality field. We here re-evaluate the previous findings in the light of personality criteria, which we propose for ASH validation: between-individual differences, repeatability and heritability in tendency for pre-copulatory attacks (and pre-copulatory cannibalism) and voracity towards prey, and their correlation. To re-evaluate ASH and to allow for additional or alternative explanations, we ask whether pre-copulatory cannibalism depends on female hunger, mating status, size and/or male quality. Finally, we ask whether cannibalistic females have a reduced reproductive success as predicted by the ASH. While repeatability and heritability in voracity towards prey and its correlation with the tendency to engage in pre-copulatory cannibalism were found in certain systems, we lack any evidence for repeatability and heritability in pre-copulatory cannibalistic attempts and for its maladaptiveness. Rather than only resorting to the ASH, foraging and mate choice hypotheses may also explain pre-copulatory cannibalism. We suggest clarifying the use of the terms sexual cannibalism (effect) and female aggressiveness or tendency to attack and devour males (cause), and argue that male strategies to avoid cannibalism should be considered. We propose testing the ASH as the explanation for pre-copulatory cannibalism in those cases where female tendency to devour males correlates with actual pre-copulatory cannibalism and when all the above criteria are fulfilled. Finally, we propose future directions for studying the ASH.