Temporal Structure in Cooperative Interactions: What Does the Timing of Exploitation Tell Us about Its Cost?

Jessica L. Barker, Judith L. Bronstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Exploitation in cooperative interactions both within and between species is widespread. Although it is assumed to be costly to be exploited, mechanisms to control exploitation are surprisingly rare, making the persistence of cooperation a fundamental paradox in evolutionary biology and ecology. Focusing on between-species cooperation (mutualism), we hypothesize that the temporal sequence in which exploitation occurs relative to cooperation affects its net costs and argue that this can help explain when and where control mechanisms are observed in nature. Our principal prediction is that when exploitation occurs late relative to cooperation, there should be little selection to limit its effects (analogous to “tolerated theft” in human cooperative groups). Although we focus on cases in which mutualists and exploiters are different individuals (of the same or different species), our inferences can readily be extended to cases in which individuals exhibit mixed cooperative-exploitative strategies. We demonstrate that temporal structure should be considered alongside spatial structure as an important process affecting the evolution of cooperation. We also provide testable predictions to guide future empirical research on interspecific as well as intraspecific cooperation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1002371
JournalPLoS biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 3 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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