Genotyping confirms significant cannibalism in northern Gulf of Mexico invasive red lionfish, Pterois volitans.
DNA barcoding is used in a variety of ecological applications to identify organisms, including partially digested prey items from diet samples. That particular application can enhance the ability to characterize diet and predator-prey dynamics but is problematic when genetic sequences of prey match those of consumer species (i.e., self-DNA). Such a result may indicate cannibalism, but false positives can result from contamination of degraded prey samples with consumer DNA. Here, nuclear-encoded microsatellite markers were used to genotype invasive lionfish, Pterois volitans, consumers and their prey (n=80 pairs) previously barcoded as lionfish. Cannibalism was confirmed when samples exhibited two or more different alleles between lionfish and prey DNA across multiple microsatellite loci. This occurred in 26.2% of all samples and in 42% of samples for which the data were considered conclusive. These estimates should be considered conservative given rigorous assignment criteria and low allelic diversity in invasive lionfish populations. The highest incidence of cannibalism corresponded to larger sized consumers from areas with high lionfish densities, suggesting cannibalism in northern Gulf of Mexico lionfish is size- and density-dependent. Cannibalism has the potential to influence population dynamics of lionfish which lack native western Atlantic predators. These results also have important implications for interpreting DNA barcoding analysis of diet in other predatory species where cannibalism may be underreported.