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What Is Kleptoparasitism?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

Kleptoparasitism, which means parasitism by theft, is a way of feeding in which one animal takes the food that another has caught, prepared or collected. Kleptoparasitism is also the taking of nesting material or other important objects from another animal.

Cuckoo bee (genus: Nomada) above would lay their eggs in the nest of tawny mining bee. © Giles Gonthier.

Life is easy for kleptoparasite

The kleptoparasite benefits from getting the food or objects, as it saves them the time and energy that’s needed to get these resources for itself. The thief does risk injury or death on occasion, though.

There are two types of kleptoparasitism

Kleptoparasitism can be intraspecific (between members of the same species) or interspecific (between members of different species). In the case of interspecific kleptoparasitism, the parasites are closely related to the species they parasitize.

Oystercatcher and musselcathers

Milichia patrizii, the ant-mugging fly forcing Crematogaster ant to regurgitate its food. © Alex Wild.

Animals with specialized feeding methods are prone to being victims – oystercatchers are birds with beaks capable of breaking mussel shells. Juvenile musselcatchers often steal broken mussels from adult before they become strong or skillful enough to break shells themselves. Diving birds are also frequent victims – they bring their prey up from deep waters inaccessible to other birds, and the other birds are waiting for them! Chinstrap penguins often steal nest decorations from their neighbors, which causes some serious spats.

Bees and wasps

Insects can be kleptoparasites. There are several species of cuckoo bees that lay their eggs in the nest cells of other bees. These insects are seen as kleptoparasites rather than brood parasites, as true brood parasites are fed directly by the adults once they’ve hatched. With bees, the food is laid out before the eggs are laid.

Great frigatebirds chasing a red-footed booby to steal it food. © Duncan Wright, USFWS.

Flies

Kleptoparasites are also found among flies. The Chloropidae and the Milichiidae are good examples. There are some species of adult milichiids that climb onto spider webs and eat the remains of half-eaten stink bugs. Some flies in the Bengalia genus hang around by ant trails and steal the food and pupae that the ant lines are transporting.

Reed Warbler feeding a Common Cuckoo chick, example of brood parasite. © Per Harald Olsen.

Birds that steals

Kleptoparasitism is fairly uncommon among birds, but skuas and frigatebirds use this feeding method a lot. Bald eagles have been observed attacking other predatory birds, like ospreys, and stealing their fish. Eurasian blackbirds have also been seen wrestling smashed snails from thrushes. Skuas in particular are successful thieves, attacking mainly terns and gulls. They also harass other fish-eating birds like auks until they regurgitate their catches. Skuas often gang up on a victim and share the spoils, which is a winning tactic.

Mammals

The well-known relationship between hyenas and lions is well known, as they are often to be found stealing from each other. All hyenas will steal if the opportunity arises, and jackals are not above a bit of thieving either. Sperm whales have been seen stealing fish from fishermen’s lines, and this behavior makes them the world’s biggest kleptoparasites.

Humans

Even humans can indulge in kleptoparasitism – they often chase lions away from their downed prey and eat it themselves. One researcher saw this activity in Cameroon in 2006, and it’s more widespread than commonly thought. The Bororo herdmen said that they frequently chase lions from their prey animals, and this theft may be helping the decline of lions in Cameroon.

Relationship between organisms

  1. Cannibalism
  2. Commensalism
  3. Mutualism
  4. Parasitism
  5. Symbiosis

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