Eco-evolutionary dynamics of mutualists and exploiters

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56 Scopus citations


With the growing recognition of exploiters as a prominent and enduring feature of many mutualisms, there is a need to understand the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of mutualisms in the context of exploitation. Here, we model coevolution between mutualist and exploiter birth rates, using an obligate pollinating seed parasite mutualism associated with a nonpollinating exploiter as a reference system. In this system, mutualist and exploiter larvae parasitize the host plant, competing for and consuming seeds. Evolution of the mutualist determines which exploiters can invade successfully. Subsequent coevolution with an exploiter has a strong, predictable influence on mutualist-exploiter coexistence, mutualist and exploiter phenotypes, and species abundances. Weak mutualist competition promotes "evolutionary purging" of the exploiter, while weak exploiter competition leads to "evolutionary suicide" of the system. When stable, long-term coexistence occurs, we identify two main "trait-abundance syndromes" that have three novel implications. (1) Persistent, highly parasitic exploiters can be favored by coevolution. (2) Even then, the density of coevolved mutualists can be high. (3) Low plant density results primarily from the evolution of mutualist, not exploiter, birth rate and density. To evaluate these predictions, studies are needed that identify and compare populations with and without exploiters and compare life-history traits of mutualists and exploiters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)780-794
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2009


  • Adaptive dynamics
  • Coevolution
  • Coexistence
  • Competition
  • Exploitation
  • Mutualism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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