What Is Mutualism?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

Mutualism is another category describing relationships between different species. In the mutualistic relationship, each species benefits from the other; it is another form of symbiosis. No one species can survive alone. It allows each species to thrive in its own niche, sharing this niche with other species and organisms. Some interactions are beneficial, others will be lethal.

There are 2 categories of mutualism

Scientists have divided mutualism into two categories. One has to do with proximity and duration of relationship while the other has to do with interaction and physicality. In other words, direct or indirect physical contact. It is similar to the barter system used in the past where as one person would offer a good or service in exchange for a good or service from someone else. In nature, the benefits of a mutualistic system includes:

  1. Nutrition
  2. Protection
  3. Transportation
  4. Supply of energy

Red-billed oxpeckers are feeding on parasites found on the Impala, a practice that benefits both animals. © Muhammad Mahdi Karim.

Exchange of energy

The majority of symbiotic mutualism relationships occurs as they are due to an exchange of energy from one species to another. The best example of this type of relationship would be the way all animals rely on plants to rid the air of carbon dioxide and to give off the oxygen they need to breathe. Here are a few more examples of mutualistic relationships:

Example #1: Humans and bacteria

Most vertebrates, including humans, can’t survive without a certain amount of bacteria living within their intestinal tract. These bacteria aid in the digestion of food and in return, they receive nutrition and energy. There is a delicate balance that has to be maintained within the system so that no one bacteria colony overruns the intestinal tract. If a balance doesn’t happen, the host will become ill.

A European honey bee gets nectar from an Aster flower while the flower gets help in pollination. © John Severns.

Example #2: Fungus and algae

Due to a partnership between fungus and algae, lichen can thrive. The algae are green and contain chlorophyll, it provides the nutrition which the fungus can’t produce. The fungus protects the algae by providing shade so that it doesn’t dry out.

Example #3: Mycorrhizal

Another mutualistic relationship involving fungi is mycorrhizal. Plants benefit when certain type of fungi attaches itself to their roots. The fungus greatly increases the area of the roots, which allows the plant to absorb more nutrition from the soil. In this manner, both obtain the nutrition they need.

Example #4: Bacteria and legumes

Without nitrogen fixing bacteria in the roots of legumes, they would not be as rich in plant proteins as they are. Bacteria and the legumes both benefit from being able to increase the nutritional supply.

Brownish-green photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae on colorless coral polyp. © osf.co.uk.

Example #5: Polyps and zooxanthellae

One of the best examples of mutualism can be found by observing the relationship between coral polyps and zooxanthellae (a single cell algae) that lives insidethe polyp. The corals rely on the algae to provide food from photosynthesis and the algae relies on the polyp to share the nitrogen it gets from nocturnal hunting.

Example #6: Bees, insects and flowering plants

Who has not heard of the symbiotic relationship between flowering plants and trees to honey bees and other insects. In order for plants to reproduce, they have to have a way to get their spores from the male plant to the female plant. The bees and insects come to the flowers to eat the nectar and the tiny hairs on their bodies get covered with pollen (the male sperm is in this). The insect flits from plant to plant picking up pollen as it goes. This is seen as one of the most important mutualistic relationships.

Bees are important

The next time you go to kill a bee think of the ramifications if all the bees and insects were gone. The plants and trees would soon dwindle and die out and all animals that rely on oxygen to survive will perish.

Mutualism = both party benefits

Relationship between organisms

  1. Cannibalism
  2. Commensalism
  3. Kleptoparasitism
  4. Parasitism
  5. Symbiosis

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