Cannibalism as an interacting phenotype: precannibalistic aggression is influenced by social partners in the endangered Socorro Isopod (Thermosphaeroma thermophilum)


Correspondence: B. H. Bleakley, Department of Biology, Stonehill College, Easton, MA 02357, USA. Tel.: +1 508 565 1590; fax: +1 508 565 1460; e-mail:


Models for the evolution of cannibalism highlight the importance of asymmetries between individuals in initiating cannibalistic attacks. Studies may include measures of body size but typically group individuals into size/age classes or compare populations. Such broad comparisons may obscure the details of interactions that ultimately determine how socially contingent characteristics evolve. We propose that understanding cannibalism is facilitated by using an interacting phenotypes perspective that includes the influences of the phenotype of a social partner on the behaviour of a focal individual and focuses on variation in individual pairwise interactions. We investigated how relative body size, a composite trait between a focal individual and its social partner, and the sex of the partners influenced precannibalistic aggression in the endangered Socorro isopod, Thermosphaeroma thermophilum. We also investigated whether differences in mating interest among males and females influenced cannibalism in mixed sex pairs. We studied these questions in three populations that differ markedly in range of body size and opportunities for interactions among individuals. We found that relative body size influences the probability of and latency to attack. We observed differences in the likelihood of and latency to attack based on both an individual's sex and the sex of its partner but found no evidence of sexual conflict. The instigation of precannibalistic aggression in these isopods is therefore a property of both an individual and its social partner. Our results suggest that interacting phenotype models would be improved by incorporating a new conditional ψ, which describes the strength of a social partner's influence on focal behaviour.