February 6, 2024

An introduction to Mutualism: Nature’s partners in survival!

From the ocean floor to the rainforest canopy, nature has perfected the art of mutualism. As our planet has evolved over millions of years, animals, plants, and lots of other species have found amazing ways to work together, becoming partners in survival. This relationship is called mutualism, and it’s one of the key building blocks of a successful and healthy ecosystem.

What is mutualism?

Mutualism is the beneficial relationship between some species and organisms. It was coined by Belgian zoologist Pierre-Joseph van Beneden all the way back in 1876, when he used the term to describe “mutual aid among species”—how some animals, plants, and even single-celled organisms work together to form win-win relationships.

A cute clownfish peering out of some sea anenome
Clownfish and sea anemone have a mutualistic relationship

Mutualism in the wild can be broken down into five distinct patterns:

  • Facultative mutualism: When species have a flexible relationship with each other, meaning they rely on each other when conditions are favorable. Think of it as a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, but we're okay if we have to go solo" arrangement.
  • Obligate mutualism: When species are completely dependent on each other for survival. Obligate relationships can be thought of as a “ride or die” alliance. 
  • Trophic mutualism: Similar to Facultative mutualism, but the exchange of food or nutrients is the only focus of this relationship. Species provide food or energy to each other for mutual benefit. 
  • Defensive mutualism: When one side of the relationship receives food and shelter, and in return helps their partner to defend against predators, parasites or other threats.
  • Dispersive mutualism: When one partner (pollinators) receive food in return for helping flowers spread their pollen. 
Bees gathering nectar from a flower
When bees fly from flower to flower, they spread the flower's pollen

One of the best examples of mutualism in action is between bees and flowering plants. The bees buzz around collecting nectar from flowering plants to make their honey, while at the same time pollinating the flowers, helping them reproduce. For the bees, this flower buffet lets them make honey for the hive. For the flowers, the bees provide a crucial service by spreading pollen from one flower to another. This relationship allows both species to survive.  

Why are relationships in nature important?

Mutualism is very important for maintaining the balance and stability of ecosystems, but it's not the only type of relationship in nature. From predation (where one animal hunts another for food), to competition (when species need to compete for resources), to then mutualism—all of these special ecological relationships are the foundation of healthy ecosystems.

An owl catching a mousee
Predation is a type of ecological relationship that's important to ecosystems

If we use the relationship between bees and plants as an example, bees are important because without them some plants could not survive. Honeybees alone pollinate 80% of all flowering plants, including more than 130 types of fruits and vegetables, making them a valuable keystone species. This is an example of why mutual relationships in the wild are so fundamental for human survival.

Special relationships maintain the balance and stability of ecosystems. They ensure the survival of species and support natural processes. However, biodiversity loss can easily upset these relationships. For instance, competition among species can strengthen populations, but it can be upset by the introduction of invasive species from one ecosystem to another, who take over and destroy the ecosystem’s natural harmony. 

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8 examples of mutualism in action

Here are a few more examples of the weird and wonderful ways animals, plants and organisms help each other out in the wild.

Clownfish & sea anemone

As you might have remembered from the beloved Pixar movie Finding Nemo, clownfish live among the tentacles of sea anemones, which protect them from predators. At the same time, the fish help the anemones keep clean, and provide them with nutrients through their waste.

Honeyguides & humans

A small bird (honeyguide) eating a honeycomb
Humans help the honeyguides access honey and bee larve

An important mutualistic relationship has evolved between honeyguides and humans! Honeyguides are a bird found in the forests of Sub-Saharan Africa, who have the remarkable talent of guiding humans to bee colonies. Through call signals, honeyguides can help hunter-gatherers locate bee nests, and in return the birds can enjoy the beeswax and larvae they live on. Without people, the birds could not access the honey and larvae in the hives. 

Having said this, some communities tend to destroy or burn the beehives after they have been found. This way, the honeyguides stay hungry and have more incentive to find new nests. This, of course, changes the important mutualistic relationship between honeyguides and people.

Pistol shrimps & goby fish

Pistol shrimp and goby fish have co-evolved together due to the benefits of their relationship. The shrimps construct and maintain a protective burrow for the goby fish to use to keep safe and breed. In return, the goby acts as a watchman, keeping an eye out for any predators. Furthermore, the goby eats up all the tiny insects disturbed by the shrimp’s activity, and the shrimp feeds on what the goby leaves behind. 

Sloths & algae

A sloth moving along a tree branch
Sloth's have a symbiotic relationship with algae

Ever wondered why wild sloths look green? This is because they are covered in a type of algae that helps keep them camouflaged and safe from predators. In return for the natural camo, the algae thrives on the back of the sloth, benefiting from the moisture and shelter the slow-moving bear provides.

Ants & butterflies

A fascinating relationship has evolved between ants and the caterpillars that eventually become lycaenidae butterflies—commonly known as blues, coppers and hairstreaks. The ants swarm around the caterpillar, massaging special glands on its body to release a nectar-like substance, which they use as food. In return, the caterpillar has an army of ants to protect it, which can become aggressive if they feel like their food source is at risk.

Oxpeckers & grazing animals

Two birds (oxpeckers) on the back of a zebra
Oxpeckers find delicious meals on the backs of grazing animals

If you’ve ever seen any footage of the African savanna, you will have seen birds hitching a ride on the backs of grazing animals. These birds are called oxpeckers, and they have an important job in keeping ticks, flies and other parasites away from rhinos, buffalos, elephants and other grazers. In return for keeping these animals parasite free, the birds get to enjoy a delicious meal.

Pitcher plants & woolly bats

Found on the island of Borneo, the Hardwicke’s woolly bat has evolved a unique relationship with giant pitcher plants, using their carnivorous modified leaves (called pitfall traps) as safe places to roost. The plant does not digest the bat, however, and instead the plants are fed and fertilized by the bat’s droppings. 

Lichens & trees

Some lichen growing on tree bark
Lichens are opportunistic organisms that use trees to survive

Lichens have a commensalistic relationship with trees—meaning that they don’t provide trees with any harm or benefit, but use them to survive. The lichens attach themselves to the outer bark of trees to gain better access to sunlight, from which they can synthesize their food. As a result, Lichens are not parasitic, but are in fact opportunistic.

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