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15 Examples of Symbiosis in Nature

15 Examples of Symbiosis in Nature

Symbiosis describes the relationship between animals or plants of two different species. For example, when Oxpeckers sit on cows and eat their fleas, the oxpeckers get a feed while the cows get groomed.

Symbiosis can be beneficial (positive symbiosis) for both the members or harmful (negative symbiosis) for one of the members and beneficial for the other. In some cases, it does not affect one of the engaged members in any way (neutral).

The types of symbiosis are:

  • Mutualism – Both the involved parties mutually benefit from their interactions.
  • Parasitism – One animal benefits while the other animal is harmed.
  • Commensalism – One animal benefits from the other but the other one doesn’t get affected at all.
  • Predation – Members of a particular species feed on the members of other species.
  • Competition – Both the parties compete with each other for the resources and status in that ecosystem.

There are many examples of symbiotic relationships in nature. Here 15 symbiotic relationships that exist between various kinds of organisms.

Symbiosis Examples

1. Ants and Fungi

Ants on the floor

Type: Mutualism

Fungus is valuable for ant colonies. Ants gather food in form of leaves of different plants, but they cannot digest this food well, so they use fungus to digest the food for them!

The fungus will feed on those leaves and break the plant cellulose into simpler forms of proteins and sugar.

Being in the ant nest also gives the fungus a sense of protection. The fungus doesn’t need to think of procuring food as the ants are doing that for them.

Ants even carry the fungus with them when they leave their old colonies behind and go to newer nests.

A particular ant colony will only allow a particular kind of fungal species in its nest. Different ant species are known to favor different fungal species.

Related Article: Mutualism vs Commensalism

2. Goby Fish and Snapping Shrimp

Type: Mutualism

Goby fish and shrimp demonstrate an elaborate and highly responsive mutual relationship. Shrimp build burrows that they allow goby fish to live in. In return, the goby fish use their superior eyesight to warn the shrimp of nearby predators.

The symbiosis was first discovered in the Red Sea in the 1950s.

Shrimp have very poor vision and are close to being completely blind. However, they are known to build little burrows using the sand and sediment at the bottom of the sea.

Their burrowing acts as a secluded place of residence which provides them with security at the bottom of the sea.

Shrimps allow the Goby fish to reside in the burrow with them. In exchange, the goby fish protect the shrimp from predatory activities.

Even when the shrimp is outside the burrow, the fish and the shrimp always remain in close association and the fish will let the shrimp know if any predators are nearby through their tail movement. Then, the shrimp will retreat into the burrow to evade predation.

The chances of the survival of both these organisms increase enormously when they work in association. In fact, both are known to use the burrow as a place for initially letting their offspring grow.

These organisms show positive association even under artificially created marine aquariums.

Read Also: 10 Coevolution Examples

3. Fruit Bats and Fig Plants

Fruit Bat

Type: Mutualism

Fruit bats and fig plants heavily depend on each other for survival and without each other, they often find it hard to thrive. The trees give the bats food while the bats spread the seeds for the trees. This is a fine example of a mutualistic relationship.

The fig plants act as a great reservoir of food for the bats and they heavily feed on the edible portion of the plants. They often end up carrying fig fruit to different locations and in this process end up dispersing the seeds to different locations.

Even the fruit they consume directly from the trees ends up being useful to the fig trees. The seeds are excreted by the bats to distant locations which again helps in the dispersion of the seeds.

Read Also: Mutualism vs Symbiosis

4. Mosquitoes and Humans

Type: Parasitism

Mosquitoes feed on the blood of humans. However, they do not directly intend to kill humans as they need their host to be alive for their survival.

On the other hand, humans are disturbed to some extent by mosquito bites but are not severely harmed (at least directly) in most instances.

Humans are important for the survival of the mosquitoes but the mosquitoes are ending up harming the humans. So this is an example of a parasitic symbiotic relationship.

5. Barber fish and Sharks

Horn Shark

Type: Mutualism

Barber fish eat parasites off of a shark’s body. The sharks allow them to eat from their body as the barber fish are essentially grooming the sharks. This lowers the shark’s chances of getting infections.

Sharks have mutualistic symbiosis with other animals as well.

For example, jackfish travel with sharks and use the sharks as a diversion for prey while hunting. The large-sized body of the shark will catch all the attention of the prey and hence they can attack their prey while the shark is diverting the attention of the prey.

6. Tapeworms and Dogs

Type: Parasitic symbiosis

Tapeworms attach themselves to the intestinal lining of the stomach of dogs and feed on the food items consumed by the dogs themselves.

Dogs don’t benefit from this relationship, but they’re rarely harmed, either. At times, they can irritate the dogs which may affect their normal behavior to some extent, but this is not common.

Furthermore, dogs don’t get infected directly from tapeworm eggs as the tapeworms need to pass through an intermediary host to become infectious in nature.

7. Head Lice and Humans

Humans

Type: Parasitic symbiosis

Lice demonstrate a parasitic symbiotic relationship with humans and they generally feed on our blood. They are commonly found to grow on human heads as they love to thrive under hair which provides them with suitable warmth.

Moreover, another advantage of existing in the body of a large animal is that large animals won’t take much notice when the lice bite the head surface for blood. It may only lead to a little bit of itching.

While lice benefit from having a suitable host, humans get no benefit (and in fact may be a little irritated), meaning this is a parasitic relationship.

8. Sea Sponges and Coral

Type: Competitive Symbiosis

This is a classic example of competitive symbiosis where coral and sea sponges both rely upon each other and compete with each other to use finite sea resources.

Sea sponges and coral are interdependent. However, if sponges end up dominating the majority of the resources then the coral will end up dying. Ironically, this is not something the sponges want.

If the coral dies, the balance of the reef will be damaged and in turn, the sponges will find it hard to survive on their own there as they need the coral to act as an anchor.

Similarly, the sponges attract bacteria and algae towards the reef which helps in keeping the coral reef filled with resources. The sponges entrap excess amounts of nutrients present in the water and further help in distributing that nutrition along the reef. Coral and sponges can further form symbiosis relationships with these bacteria and algae.

In fact, sponges are the reason behind the colorful and vibrant look of coral reefs.

So, the sponges, coral, bacteria, and algae are interdependent. If, due to global warming or some other reason, any one of these organisms is affected, then the whole ecosystem of the reef gets affected.

9. Wolves and Bears

wolves

Type: Competitive Symbiosis

Bears rely heavily on wolves because they often eat animals that wolves have trapped or harmed. Bears can’t run as fast as wolves, but once the wolves have completed the hunt, bears will often intervene and steal the meat. 

These two animals go after similar kinds of prey and hence often they end up competing with each other. They demonstrate a competitive symbiotic relationship where they compete for similar kinds of resources in the ecosystem.

If any one of the wolf and bear species gets wiped out from a particular location it will lead to a series of problems in the ecological chain of the region. For example, the absence of wolves will lead to a rise in coyotes in a region.

10. Sheep and Cattle

Type: Mutualism

When cattle and sheep are grown together side by side and graze through the same field, they tend to develop a grazing pattern that is commonly seen only in cases of multispecies grazing.

When cows graze in a field, they don’t graze as deeply as sheep. As a result, sheep can then come through and graze on the same grass and eat it right down right to its base.

This works out perfectly because cattle are known to like longer-sized grasses and they don’t eat the grass fully. Sheep, on the other hand, prefer eating shorter-length grass.

This comes as a boon to many livestock growers as the cost of maintenance gets reduced. However, it is important that there is always an abundance of food and they never end up facing scarcity of food as that can affect the symbiotic relationship owing to over competitiveness.

11. Algae and Coral

Algae

Type: Mutualism

There is type of algae termed zooxanthellae which demonstrates an awesome mutualistic relationship with coral. This relationship is the reason both coral and algae have managed to grow over vast stretches of the ocean floor.

The algae perform photosynthesis with the help of the nutrients obtained from coral. It then provides the coral with oxygen which is produced as a result of the proper conduction of the photosynthetic process.

Oxygen is a very important and scarce resource under the deep stretches of the ocean. Similarly, it is hard for algae to obtain the nutrients under such tough conditions to survive in the first place. So, they assist each other to survive and expand their respective population.

12. Barnacles and Crabs

Type: Parasitic

Barnacles settle within the reproductive system of crabs and, in the long run, they can secrete hormones that can alter the biological properties of crabs and can prevent them from reproducing properly.

So, crabs do not die from this association but their ability to reproduce is impacted severely.

Barnacles aim to create hormonal imbalances with the crab body to alter their gender. They facilitate hormonal changes in the body that will convert them from a male crab to a female crab (at least behaviorally).

They do this because female crabs have the best chance of attracting newer mates. When that happens, the barnacles will be able to transfer their larvae to a wider number of individuals.

13. Barnacles and Whales

orca

Type: Commensalism

The relationship barnacles and whales share is termed commensalism. It is something that doesn’t affect the whales in any way however it helps the barnacles enormously and plays an important role in their survival.

Barnacles attach themselves to the giant whale body which gives them sufficient protection against other predators in the water. Predators won’t approach the whales as they are toward the top of the food chain under the water.

Moreover, they also get to feast on the leftover food items of the whale and they get to travel around under the water without spending any energy.

14. Nile Crocodile and Egyptian Plover

Type: Mutualism

Egyptian Plovers are tiny birds who take extraordinary actions to fulfil their appetite. Whenever they spot a crocodile lying outside the water with its mouth open, they will enter the mouth of the crocodile, pluck out the different food materials stuck on its teeth, and fly out of the mouth unharmed!

Their small appetite gets perfectly served through this process of eating bits and pieces from the crocodile’s mouth. The crocodiles allow these birds to carry on such actions as they are helping the crocodile in cleaning their mouth. This will reduce the chances of the crocodiles developing any kind of infections of the mouth.

Essentially, the plover cleans the crocodile’s teeth and, in return, the crocodile doesn’t eat the plover!

15. Drongos and Meerkats

Meerkat

Drongos are incredibly intelligent little birds found in Africa. They use a strategy of deception to procure their food. They essentially wait for other animals to be eating their meal then scare them off with warning calls! Once the animal flees, they eat the meal.

Drongos are good at mimicking many different kinds of sounds and these birds spend a lot of their time in their early development period picking up on those sounds. They particularly pick up on the warning or alerting class of those particular species of animals.

Every species have got a characteristic warning call of its own (for humans it could have been shouting “danger! danger!”). Their strategy is to mimic other animals’ warning calls to make them get tense or panicked.

As a result, the animals may flee from the scene, without finishing their meal. The Drongos then feed on those unfinished meals.

Meerkats are one of the animals they often target for this purpose. To avoid getting repetitive with their tactic or to prevent the other animals to get habituated with their art of treachery, they use the concept of tactical deception.

Sometimes, they issue the warnings when the animals are genuinely in danger. This is how they keep the birds from getting suspicious of their activities by helping them out in a truer sense from time to time. So by mixing the truth and the lies together, they make it hard for their victims to not trust them. 

Conclusion

Symbiosis is a close and prolonged association between two different organisms of different species that often results in various benefits for both parties. Many examples of symbiotic relationships can be found in nature, and the above are only the beginning.

Other examples include the relationship between bees and flowers. The bee collects nectar from the flower, which is used to make honey, while the flower relies on the bee to spread its pollen and complete its life cycle. In this way, both the bee and the flower benefit from their association with each other.

Other examples of symbiotic relationships in nature include the relationship between clownfish and anemones, as well as the relationship between termites and certain types of bacteria.

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