Mutualism is the interaction between the organisms of multiple species of similar as well as different biological origins. This interaction ultimately ends up being beneficial for both individuals and becomes important for their better survival.
It is a relationship that is only established when both the parties get mutually benefitted from the association.
Mutualism can be of various types:
- Dispersive (One party provides the food and they in return help in dispersing the pollen of the other party)
- Trophic (The parties both obtain nutrition from one another through dedicated processes)
- Defensive (One party gets food and shelter and in exchange, the other party protects them from predatory attacks)
- Facultative (The parties can exist without depending on one another but it is beneficial for them to help each other)
- Obligate (Both parties rely hugely on one another and will find it hard to survive without the bond)
There are many instances of mutualism in nature and here we share with you 15 such examples of mutualism that exist in the world among a variety of animals and plants.
1. Ants and Aphids
Aphids are known to secrete a very sweet secretion known as honeydew which is something the ants love to feast on.
But for secreting honeydew, the aphids need to first feed on the juicy sap portion of the plants.So ants end up directing the aphids to the juiciest portion of different plants and in exchange, the aphids secrete the honeydew.
In a way, ants end up farming the aphids for the production of honeydew.
- The ants give protection to the aphids and guide them to the juiciest portions of the plants.
- The ants in exchange for that service, are allowed to stimulate the aphids by rubbing their antennas against their bodies, which further leads to the secretion of the honeydew, which then is collected by the worker ants.
- In certain ant varieties, there are dedicated worker ants whose only task is to look after the well-being of the aphids. When they set up new colonies in different places, worker ants can carry off some aphid eggs with them to the new colony to make sure the arrangement keeps on working in the new nest as well.
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2. Senita Moth and Senita Cactus
The Senita moth and the Senita cactus share a really deep mutualistic relationship. The Senita moths procure their food only from a particular variety of cactuses, known as the Senita cactuses.
They depend so much on these cactuses for their food that they end up laying their eggs in them.
The Senita cactus depends on the Senita moth for pollinating its flowers. This is an interesting relationship as the moth raises its babies within its food source.
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3. Yucca Moth and the Yucca Plant
This one is another plant and moth mutualistic relationship that has been going on for about 40 million years!
Both of them depend on each other for their existence. The male and female moths after emerging from their cocoons, look for Yucca plants and then mate on these plants. The female yucca moths then lay their eggs in the flowers of the yucca plant. The offsprings of the moth use the yucca plant seeds as a food source and then when they grow up they end up pollinating the yucca plant.
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4. Humans and Honeyguides
Humans and some bird species are often found to share a mutualistic relationship. One prominent example of that is the relationship between honeyguides and humans.
The honeyguides, as the name suggests direct humans towards bee hives.
When humans demolish the hive and collect the honey, these birds feed on the remaining extracts of beeswax and leftover honey.
- Initially, these birds gain the attention of humans by making a special kind of noise.
- Once they know for sure that a human is on their trail, they start flying from tree to tree at a steady pace so that the human can catch up with them.
- Ultimately they guide them towards the exact direction of the beehive.
- Bees can inflict deadly injuries upon birds when they attack in swarms and hence honeyguides depend on humans in taking care of the bees. They then feast upon the leftovers without any threat of getting injured.
5. Flowers and Honeybees
This is one of the most commonly known mutualistic relationships that exist between the animal and plant world. Honeybees collect honey from the flowers which is the primary source of their food source.
They also collect resins and wax from the flowers to build their hives. Male bees of some bee varieties are also known to collect certain volatile compounds from the flowers which act as perfumes to attract females.
In exchange for all these, bees act as excellent carriers of the flower pollens and hence actively take part in the pollination of the flower.
6. Acacia Ants and Bullhorn Acacia Tree
There is this particular species of ants, Pseudomyrmexferrugineathat aggressively protects and defends the Bullhorn acacia tree from all kinds of other insects and microorganisms that can harm the tree.
In exchange, they use the tree as a food resource and even make their nest within the thick thorns of the tree, lay eggs, and built their colony there.
The ants and the tree are mostly found in places in Central America and Mexico.
The tree is full of lucrative nutrient-rich resources which act as dependable food resources for the ants. The acacia leaves have growths at the end of their leaves known as the Beltian bodies which are full of vitamins, proteins, and fats.
The tree bark is well built and thick. It also has sharp edges in some places so birds and other big animals avoid being around the tree. Moreover, the thorns of the tree are waterproof so it protects the ant colony during periods of rainfall.
7. Anemones and Clownfish
There are only selective species of anemones and clownfish that are known to engage in a mutualistic relationship with each other.
Even within the selective species, not all anemones or clown fishes are compatible with one another.
In an environment full of danger and predatory attacks, the anemones take up the task of protecting the clownfish and providing them a safe environment to thrive.
In exchange for this, the clown fishes clean the anemones and provides them with their wastes which are a great source of nutrients for the anemones.
8. Sharks and Remora Fish
There are small-sized fishes in the oceans called the Remora fishes, who have suction cup-shaped dorsal fins which allow them to fit in perfectly with the underbelly region of the sharks.
This allows these fishes to feed on scraps or leftovers of whatever the sharks feed on. These fishes also end up consuming the parasite and different microbes present in the shark body which oftentimes irritates them a lot as they cannot directly get rid of those organisms by themselves.
So this arrangement works out well for them. The fishes get to have multiple options of food after attaching themselves to the shark bodies, moreover, they get to be protected from other larger fishes down in the deep ocean. The shark, on the other hand, gets to have the annoying parasites present on its body removed by the fish.
9. Mammals and Oxpeckers
Oxpeckers are little yellow and red-colored birds that feed off parasites and different kinds of microbes present in the body of larger mammals like rhinoceros, giraffes, hippopotamus, etc.
These animals have a really bad time getting rid of the organisms living off its body, particularly in the back portion. So in a way, these birds groom these animals and help them to get rid of parasites like ticks and other organisms off their back.
These birds not only feast upon the parasites but also consume the ear wax, dandruff, and blood (from open wounds) of these animals.
Also, these birds often alert the organisms they are feeding on, whenever some kind of danger approaches them, so this is like a bonus for the mammals and often such advanced assertiveness helps them to save their life.
10. Protozoa and Termites
This is currently regarded as the oldest case of mutualism to ever be discovered in nature.
An ancient piece of amber has been found which shows that protozoans that help in digesting wood, are found to be located in the gut of the termites.
The amber consists of a termite that got severely injured due to some kind of attack by some incident or by some other animals and it ended up falling on a sticky tree sap that later became the amber. From the wounded stomach region of the termite, different protozoans are being found to be oozing out which may have helped them in digesting the wood better.
This is an important aspect because even though termites survive by consuming wood that provides them cellulose, they cannot produce the enzymes needed for digesting the wood. The enzymes are produced by the protozoans. The microbes on the other hand were provided with a safe environment to thrive on.
11. Plants and Higher Animals
Humans and the majority of all other animals need oxygen for their survival which they obtain from green plants.
The plants in contrast need carbon dioxide to do photosynthesis which is the basis for their survival. Humans and other animals produce carbon dioxide as a side product of respiration which forms the primary source of carbon for the plants.
Hence both animals and plants are directly dependent upon one another for their survival. It is a cyclical mutualistic relationship where the plant provides us with oxygen and the animals provide the plant with carbon dioxide.
12. Algae and Coral
It is believed the reason corals have managed to grow exponentially over vast stretches of the ocean floor is only because of the mutualistic relationship they have with algae.
Corals commonly have photosynthetic algae (Zooxanthellae) growing on their surface. The corals provide the algae with a safe environment and base to thrive and also give them the necessary components they need for their photosynthetic process to occur seamlessly.
In exchange, the algae provide them with oxygen which is vital for their survival, and in the deep regions of the ocean, often the corals face a deficiency in the required amounts of oxygen. So in that regard this is of very high importance.
The oxygen yield of the algae is highly essential for their proper survival and expansion. Moreover, the algae also share the end products of photosynthesis with the corals. This includes various kinds of amino acids, glycerol, etc.
The corals use these resources to make the food items required for their own survival. Such kinds of associations are very important for the survival of both the corals and the algae in the nutrient-deprived region of the oceans.
13. Bacteria and Plants
There exists a particular zone around the region where the plant roots end which is termed the rhizosphere. It is the region where rhizospheric bacteria are known to exist near the plant roots and these microbes develop a mutually beneficial relationship with each other.
The microbes fix the atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia compounds which then get absorbed by the plant. The nitrogen-fixing microbes not only help the plants nutritionally but also protect the plants from pathogenic microbes attacking the plant through the root region. In exchange, the plant shares the food it prepares using the process of photosynthesis with the microbes.
14. Mammals and Bacteria
Bacteria are commonly found to exist both inside and outside the body of all kinds of mammals. They commonly exist on the outer skin surface, within the intestines, in the mouth, and in the excretory regions of the body.
The bacteria play an important role in the digestion as well as in the maintenance of a favorable micro flora ecosystem within the body which further resists the growth of foreign and pathogenic bacteria. In the digestion sector, it is only because of the presence of the bacteria that higher animals can end up digesting some specific kinds of food components.
They also help in synthesizing certain kinds of vitamins and minerals from the food items and as a whole boosts the immune system as well. In exchange for all these, they get to stay within a safe environment with an abundant supply of nutrients.
15. Pitcher Plants and Bats
The pitcher plants and bats have got a fascinating relationship between them. The inside of the pitcher plants provides a safe roosting place for the bats and they can rest there with suitable ease without the fear of being attacked by other predators.
The pitcher plant species found to be engaged in this relationship is Nepenthes hemsleyanaand the bat species isKerivoulahardwickii.
It is an amazing example of a mutualistic relationship as even though the bats stay within the pitcher plants, the plants do not end up consuming the bats! The plants provide them with a place to rest and in exchange, the bats poop in the pitcher plants.
Bat poops are rich in nitrogen and a variety of other nutrients which the pitcher plants are often deficient in. In fact, it has been found that pitcher plant often consists of structural modifications that can let them get detected by the echolocation cries of the bats in a better manner.
There are many different kinds of mutually beneficial relationships in nature. These relationships are essential for the survival of both plants and animals. These relationships are fascinating to study and can provide us with a better understanding of how different species interact with each other in the wild. They also demonstrate how the world is so interconnected. If one species is affected by climate change or other human interference, there can be a flow-through effect that can cause devastation through an ecosystem