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Mutualism: definition and examples

Competition for survival is one of the most characteristic phenomena of natural ecosystems. Relations of predation and mutualism constantly exist between individuals of different species in each and every one of the planet’s ecosystems. The race for survival never stops.

In this context, ecologists have discovered how organisms create biodiversity networks that follow common patterns in their mode of interaction to ensure their survival. Within these complex and surprising networks of biological relationships, mutualism stands out as one of the most abundant. Keep reading this interesting AgroCorrn article to learn about the definition of mutualism and examples .

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What is mutualism

The definition of mutualism appears described within studies focused on ecological relationships or biological interactions between different species, being described as that positive interaction for both parties or species that interact. That is, mutualism is based on mutually beneficial relationships , sometimes simplified with the symbols (+, +).

Said mutualism interactions are based on highly heterogeneous mutualistic networks, since the vast majority of the species that make up ecosystems frequently interact with other species, thus establishing wide-ranging connections between species, even more numerous connections than would be expected if were given in a haphazard way.

In the next sections we will see the types of mutualism that exist, as well as several examples of mutualistic interactions that occur in natural ecological systems, to better understand this type of interspecific relationship . We also recommend that you take a look at this other AgroCorrn post about interspecific relationships: types and examples .

Types of mutualism

As we have seen in the previous section, mutualistic relationships occur between sets of species that interact with each other. These relationships have a certain asymmetry and vulnerability depending on the generalist or specialist species when participating in mutualism. Based on this, two fundamental types of mutualism are distinguished :

  • Facultative mutualism: the species that interact are more generalists and do not depend exclusively on these interactions for their survival.
  • Compulsory mutualism: species necessarily need to interact in order to survive, and they are also highly specialized species, that is, they base their mutualism interactions on very specific species on which they depend.

Examples of mutualism

Among the groups of living beings that frequently use mutualism relationships as a survival strategy, plants stand out. These organisms need to have stable connections with other living beings that allow them, for example, to guarantee their pollination and seed dispersal processes for their correct reproduction and subsequent survival. Let’s see in the following list some concrete examples of relationships of mutualism that often occur in nature:

  • Mutualistic relationships between plants and frugivorous and nectarivorous birds (such as toucans and hummingbirds), which facilitate pollination and seed dispersal.
  • Mammals, mainly herbivores and omnivores, which ingest plant fruits and create relationships of mutualism by later dispersing the seeds that were inside the fruit in their excrement.
  • Mutualistic interactions between the flowers of plants and their pollinators, the vast majority, pollinating insects .
  • Systems of mutualism between ants and plants, in which the plants provide food and shelter for the ants and they defend them from possible herbivorous predators, such as the curious case of the ants that live in the acacias of the savannas, which attack giraffes. and other herbivorous animals that feed on the few acacia leaves.

Difference between mutualism and symbiosis

As we have seen throughout the article, in mutualism, both species that participate in the interaction obtain a benefit . To obtain this, most of the species that interact with each other are capable of surviving regardless of whether or not such mutualism occurs. However, there are some species in which extreme obligate mutualisms occur in which the participating species depend on each other for survival. In the latter case, we would speak of symbiosis , as a concrete case of forced mutualism taken to its maximum extreme of dependence between species to survive.

This is the striking case of lichens, made up of algae and fungi of specific species that, during symbiosis, achieve the energy necessary for their survival by “sharing” the biological functions that both organisms need. Here you can learn more about what symbiosis is with examples .

What is the difference between mutualism and commensalism

Within the interspecific relationships that occur in nature, mutualism and commensalism are among the most abundant. On the one hand, many are the species that opt ​​for mutualism (+, +) to obtain benefits on both sides, while in other cases, commensalism (+, 0) allows one species to benefit while the other does not obtain any kind of repercussion, neither positive nor negative.

To better understand the difference between both types of biological interactions, let’s think, for example, in the aforementioned case of plant pollination, where the pollinator obtains food and the plant guarantees its reproduction (+, +), which is mutualism. . On the other hand, when birds build their nests in trees and shrubs, there are commensal relationships in which the birds obtain shelter (+) but the trees do not obtain any benefit or harm (0), in terms of ecological relationships.

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