Mutualism vs Symbiosis: Similarities and Differences

Mutualism vs Symbiosis

Mutualism is a form of symbiosis. Mutualism occurs when two organisms of different species come together and undergo an interaction that is mutually beneficial for them.

Symbiosis deals with all kinds of interactions among multiple organisms, this means the interactions can be mutually beneficial as well as insignificant or harmful for one of them.

Symbiosis can be of various types including mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, predation, and competitiveness.

Is Mutualism a Type of Symbiosis?

Mutualism is a type of symbiosis. Symbiosis is the mother concept that deals with the association of two organisms of different species in a positive, negative, or neutral manner. 

Not all forms of symbiosis are mutualistic. This is because in a mutualistic interaction, both the interactive parties will benefit in some way or the other. 

So in a way, mutualism is an example of positive symbiosis where both the organisms need each other for a better chance of survival. 

In other forms of symbiosis, there are many instances where only one of the individuals is benefited while the other one is harmed or remains unaffected by the actions of the other organism. 

Symbiosis and Mutualism: Similarities and Differences

Similarities between symbiosis and mutualism include:

  • At the core, both of these processes involve the interaction of at least two organisms of different species.
  • The interaction is bound to have a positive impact on at least one of the engaging parties. In the case of mutualism generally both the engaged parties benefit. However, in other types of symbiosis, there is no guarantee that both organisms will benefit, but it is guaranteed that at least one organism will benefit from both interactions. 

Differences between symbiosis and mutualism include:

There is no guarantee that both of the interacting organisms will benefit. There is a chance that one of them can be harmed in the process or may remain unaffected totally.Both interacting organisms will be benefited in one way or the other.
Can occur between two non-parasitic species or between a host and parasite. Only occurs between two non-parasitic species.
Both organisms depending on the interaction type can need each other for their survival or in the case of parasite and host, only the parasite will need the host for survival but the host won’t need the parasite.Both organisms need each other for their optimal survival.

Prominent Examples of Mutualism in Nature

1. Remora Fish and Sharks

Some smaller-sized fish often attach themselves to a shark’s body.

They feed on the leftovers and scraps of the food items consumed by the sharks and also get to travel wide distances under the ocean without spending any of their energy.

Remora fish also feed on parasites living on a shark’s body and in so doing, the sharks to reduce the chances of infections and diseases.

2. Aphids and Ants

Aphids feed on plants and produce a component known as honeydew which is extremely sweet. Ants love to feed on this stuff. So, they keep aphids as pets so that they can have a continuous supply of food!

The ants keep separate dedicated locations in their nests for keeping aphids. When they find plant food sources, they lead the aphids to the plants, and after feeding on the plant sap, the aphids provide the ants with honeydew. 

Ants are also known to carry aphid eggs with them when they have to change their nests. Aphids get to stay in a safe location and depend a lot on the ants for obtaining food. So, it’s a win-win for both of these organisms to help each other out. 

Read Also: 15 Commensalism Examples

Prominent Examples of Symbiosis in Nature

The following examples are symbiosis but not mutualism because only one animal benefits from the symbiotic relationship, not both.

1. Spiders Living in Trees

This is an example of commensalism which is a kind of symbiosis where one of the involved parties gets all the benefits whereas the other one is not affected by any means.

Spiders build their nests by building gigantic webs among the different branches of the trees which further allows them to trap insects and other kinds of organisms that live on those trees.

Not only do the trees give them a stable place to live but also attract a variety of organisms that help to serve the appetite of the spiders. The spiders enormously benefit from the trees, but the trees do not benefit from the presence of the spiders.  

2. Tapeworms living in the Stomachs of Mammals

Tapeworms live within the intestine of a variety of animals. This is an example of a parasitic symbiotic relationship where one organism (the parasite) benefits from the other organism (the host).

Even if the parasite benefits a lot, the other organism gets harmed owing to its presence and activities of the parasite.

The intestine of the animals provide the tapeworms with a safe place to thrive and give them access to loads of partially digested food.

They feed on the food materials consumed by the host and fulfill their nutrition and go in the process of expanding their population. The nourishment of the host gets hampered because of this and their presence also leads to a variety of problematic symptoms in the host body.

When Mutualism Isn’t Symbiosis

While mutualism is nearly always examples of symbiotic relationships, they aren’t always. 

Certain types of mutualistic interactions are regarded as non-symbiotic as the interactions are non-persistent in nature, meaning they don’t happen multiple times or for a prolonged period between the organisms.

Examples include:

  • Birds often end up feeding on a particular kind of plant fruit and then end up dropping its seeds in other parts but never return to feed onto the plant fruits and never take part in distributing the seeds ever again.
  • Bees often collect honey and pollinate a particular species of a flower and may never return to the flower to repeat the process. 


Mutualism and symbiosis are not contradictory elements but they are deeply related to one another. Mutualism is a type of symbiosis that happens in nature by the association of multiple organisms. 

This association helps in enhancing the survival chances of both the indulging organisms and helps in making their lives better. Symbiosis on the other hand is not only limited to beneficial mutual relationships but to all kinds of interactions that happen between organisms of different species.

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