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Concept: Mutualism


Cliff sides are extreme habitats, often sheltering a rich and unique flora. One example is the dioecious herb Borderea chouardii (Dioscoreaceae), which is a Tertiary, tropical relict, occurring only on two adjacent vertical cliffs in the world. We studied its reproductive biology, which in some aspects is extreme, especially the unusual double mutualistic role of ants as both pollinators and dispersers. We made a 2-year pollination census and four years of seed-dispersal experiments, recording flower visitors and dispersal rates. Fruit and seed set, self-sowing of seeds, seedling recruitment, and fate of seedlings from seeds sowed by different agents were scored over a period of 17 years. The ants Lasius grandis and L. cinereus were the main pollinators, whereas another ant Pheidole pallidula dispersed seeds. Thus ants functioned as double mutualists. Two thirds of all new seedlings came from self-sown seeds, and 1/3 was dispersed by ants, which gathered the seeds with their oil-rich elaiosome. Gravity played a minor role to dispersal. Both ant dispersal and self-sowing resulted in the same survival rate of seedlings. A double mutualism is a risky reproductive strategy, but B. chouardii buffers that by an unusual long-term demographic stability (some individuals exceed 300 years in lifespan) and its presence in a climatically very stable habitat, inaccessible to large herbivores. Such a combination of traits and habitat properties may explain the persistence of this relict species.

Concepts: Plant morphology, Plant reproduction, Sexual reproduction, Mutualism, Reproduction, Plant, Symbiosis, Seed


Microbial symbioses have evolved repeatedly across the tree of life, but the genetic changes underlying transitions to symbiosis are largely unknown, especially for eukaryotic microbial symbionts. We used the genus Amanita, an iconic group of mushroom-forming fungi engaged in ectomycorrhizal symbioses with plants, to identify both the origins and potential genetic changes maintaining the stability of this mutualism. A multi-gene phylogeny reveals one origin of the symbiosis within Amanita, with a single transition from saprotrophic decomposition of dead organic matter to biotrophic dependence on host plants for carbon. Associated with this transition are the losses of two cellulase genes, each of which plays a critical role in extracellular decomposition of organic matter. However a third gene, which acts at later stages in cellulose decomposition, is retained by many, but not all, ectomycorrhizal species. Experiments confirm that symbiotic Amanita species have lost the ability to grow on complex organic matter and have therefore lost the capacity to live in forest soils without carbon supplied by a host plant. Irreversible losses of decomposition pathways are likely to play key roles in the evolutionary stability of these ubiquitous mutualisms.

Concepts: Mutualism, Life, Fungus, Rhizobia, Plant, Evolution, Symbiosis, Bacteria


Despite extensive study, little is known about the origins of the mutualistic bacterial endosymbionts that inhabit approximately 10% of the world’s insects. In this study, we characterized a novel opportunistic human pathogen, designated “strain HS,” and found that it is a close relative of the insect endosymbiont Sodalis glossinidius. Our results indicate that ancestral relatives of strain HS have served as progenitors for the independent descent of Sodalis-allied endosymbionts found in several insect hosts. Comparative analyses indicate that the gene inventories of the insect endosymbionts were independently derived from a common ancestral template through a combination of irreversible degenerative changes. Our results provide compelling support for the notion that mutualists evolve from pathogenic progenitors. They also elucidate the role of degenerative evolutionary processes in shaping the gene inventories of symbiotic bacteria at a very early stage in these mutualistic associations.

Concepts: Archaea, Parasitism, Mutualism, Endosymbiont, Microbiology, Evolution, Bacteria, Symbiosis


Some microbes possess the ability to adaptively manipulate host behavior. To better understand how such microbial parasites control animal behavior, we examine the cell-level interactions between the species-specific fungal parasite Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato and its carpenter ant host (Camponotus castaneus) at a crucial moment in the parasite’s lifecycle: when the manipulated host fixes itself permanently to a substrate by its mandibles. The fungus is known to secrete tissue-specific metabolites and cause changes in host gene expression as well as atrophy in the mandible muscles of its ant host, but it is unknown how the fungus coordinates these effects to manipulate its host’s behavior. In this study, we combine techniques in serial block-face scanning-electron microscopy and deep-learning-based image segmentation algorithms to visualize the distribution, abundance, and interactions of this fungus inside the body of its manipulated host. Fungal cells were found throughout the host body but not in the brain, implying that behavioral control of the animal body by this microbe occurs peripherally. Additionally, fungal cells invaded host muscle fibers and joined together to form networks that encircled the muscles. These networks may represent a collective foraging behavior of this parasite, which may in turn facilitate host manipulation.

Concepts: Muscle, Mutualism, Organism, Parasitism, Eukaryote, Fungus, Ant, Bacteria


The study of polymorphisms is particularly informative for enhancing our understanding of phenotypic and genetic diversity. The persistence of polymorphism in a population is generally explained by balancing selection. Color polymorphisms that are often found in many insects and arthropods are prime examples of the maintenance of polymorphisms via balancing selection. In some aphids, color morphs are maintained through frequency-dependent predation by two predatory insects. However, the presence of color polymorphism in ant-attended aphids cannot be explained by traditional balancing selection because these aphids are free from predation. We examined the selective advantages of the existence of two color (red and green) morphs in the ant-attended aphid, Macrosiphoniella yomogicola, in fields. We measured the degree of ant attendance on aphid colonies with different proportions of color morphs. The results show that the ants strongly favor aphid colonies with intermediate proportions of the two color morphs. The relationship between the degree of ant attendance and the proportion of color morphs in the field is convex when aphid colony size and ant colony size are controlled. This function has a peak of approximately 65% of green morphs in a colony. This system represents the first case of a balancing polymorphism that is not maintained by opposing factors but by a symbiotic relationship.

Concepts: Aphid, Mutualism, Symbiosis, Natural selection, Evolution, Balancing selection, Insect, Ant


Symbiont shift is rare in obligate mutualisms because both the partners are reciprocally dependent on and specialized to each other. In the obligate accommodation-transportation mutualism between walking corals and sipunculans, however, an unusual saltatory symbiont shift was discovered. In shallow waters of southern Japan, an undescribed hermit crab species was found living in corallums of solitary scleractinian corals of the genera Heterocyathus and Heteropsammia, replacing the usual sipunculan symbiont. We described the hermit crab as a new species Diogenes heteropsammicola (Decapoda, Anomura, Diogenidae), and explored its association with the walking corals. This hermit crab species obligately inhabits the coiled cavity of the corals, and was easily distinguished from other congeneric species by the exceedingly slender chelipeds and ambulatory legs, and the symmetrical telson. Observations of behavior in aquaria showed that the new hermit crab, like the sipunculan, carries the host coral and prevents the coral from being buried. This is an interesting case in which an organism phylogenetically distant from Sipuncula takes over the symbiotic role in association with a walking coral. The hermit crab species is unique in that its lodging is a living solitary coral that grows with the hermit crab in an accommodation-transportation mutualism.

Concepts: Algae, Species, Hermit crab, Crab, Mutualism, Decapoda, Coral, Symbiosis


Ants use various communication channels to regulate their social organisation. The main channel that drives almost all the ants' activities and behaviours is the chemical one, but it is long acknowledged that the acoustic channel also plays an important role. However, very little is known regarding exploitation of the acoustical channel by myrmecophile parasites to infiltrate the ant society. Among social parasites, the ant nest beetles (Paussus) are obligate myrmecophiles able to move throughout the colony at will and prey on the ants, surprisingly never eliciting aggression from the colonies. It has been recently postulated that stridulatory organs in Paussus might be evolved as an acoustic mechanism to interact with ants. Here, we survey the role of acoustic signals employed in the Paussus beetle-Pheidole ant system. Ants parasitised by Paussus beetles produce caste-specific stridulations. We found that Paussus can “speak” three different “languages”, each similar to sounds produced by different ant castes (workers, soldiers, queen). Playback experiments were used to test how host ants respond to the sounds emitted by Paussus. Our data suggest that, by mimicking the stridulations of the queen, Paussus is able to dupe the workers of its host and to be treated as royalty. This is the first report of acoustic mimicry in a beetle parasite of ants.

Concepts: Myrmecology, Fungus, Mutualism, Sound, Symbiosis, Parasitism, Insect, Ant


Invasive vertebrate predators are directly responsible for the extinction or decline of many vertebrate species, but their indirect impacts often go unmeasured, potentially leading to an underestimation of their full impact. When invasives extirpate functionally important mutualists, dependent species are likely to be affected as well. Here, we show that the invasive brown treesnake, directly responsible for the extirpation of forest birds from the island of Guam, is also indirectly responsible for a severe decline in plant recruitment as a result of disrupting the fruit-frugivore mutualism. To assess the impact of frugivore loss on plants, we compare seed dispersal and recruitment of two fleshy-fruited tree species on Guam and three nearby islands with intact disperser communities. We conservatively estimate that the loss of frugivorous birds caused by the brown treesnake may have caused a 61-92% decline in seedling recruitment. This case study highlights the potential for predator invasions to cause indirect, pervasive and easily overlooked interaction cascades.

Concepts: Mutualism, Plant morphology, Vertebrate, Symbiosis, Invasive species, Seed dispersal, Plant, Extinction


There is a pressing need to integrate large carnivore species into multi-use landscapes outside protected areas. However, an unclear understanding of coexistence hinders the realization of this goal. Here, we provide a comprehensive conceptualization of coexistence in which mutual adaptations by both large carnivores and humans have a central role.

Concepts: Integral, Mutualism, Carnivore, Diet, Human, Predation, Mammal


Comparative research on food web structure has revealed generalities in trophic organization, produced simple models, and allowed assessment of robustness to species loss. These studies have mostly focused on free-living species. Recent research has suggested that inclusion of parasites alters structure. We assess whether such changes in network structure result from unique roles and traits of parasites or from changes to diversity and complexity. We analyzed seven highly resolved food webs that include metazoan parasite data. Our analyses show that adding parasites usually increases link density and connectance (simple measures of complexity), particularly when including concomitant links (links from predators to parasites of their prey). However, we clarify prior claims that parasites “dominate” food web links. Although parasites can be involved in a majority of links, in most cases classic predation links outnumber classic parasitism links. Regarding network structure, observed changes in degree distributions, 14 commonly studied metrics, and link probabilities are consistent with scale-dependent changes in structure associated with changes in diversity and complexity. Parasite and free-living species thus have similar effects on these aspects of structure. However, two changes point to unique roles of parasites. First, adding parasites and concomitant links strongly alters the frequency of most motifs of interactions among three taxa, reflecting parasites' roles as resources for predators of their hosts, driven by trophic intimacy with their hosts. Second, compared to free-living consumers, many parasites' feeding niches appear broader and less contiguous, which may reflect complex life cycles and small body sizes. This study provides new insights about generic versus unique impacts of parasites on food web structure, extends the generality of food web theory, gives a more rigorous framework for assessing the impact of any species on trophic organization, identifies limitations of current food web models, and provides direction for future structural and dynamical models.

Concepts: Mutualism, Food chain, Predation, Symbiosis, Trophic level, Ecology, Apex predator, Parasitism