Mutually beneficial partnerships among species may play highly important but vastly underrecognized roles in keeping the Earth's ecosystems running, a group of evolutionary biologists suggests in a study.
The authors present evidence that human impacts may be forcing these mutualist systems down unprecedented evolutionary paths.
"With global climate change, evolutionary change can happen very rapidly, over a few years," said Judith Bronstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the UA's College of Science and senior author on the paper. "That can be a good thing or a bad thing, we don't know, but people need to start looking at those effects."
In an effort to distill out common traits underlying biological partnerships and to develop a set of lessons to guide future research and conservation efforts, the researchers sifted through almost 200 research studies on the effects of global change on mutualisms, or interactions between organisms that benefit both partners.
Experts from several fields joined forces in this study and published their conclusions in Ecology Letters, one of the most influential journals in the field of ecology.
"The alarmist view is that if you disrupt an interaction, you lose the interaction, you lose the community, and, ultimately, the ecosystem," Bronstein said. "We are trying to challenge people to make that explicit and to figure out whether their data support that. We need to ask, 'What is the range of possible things that can happen?'"
"It is not all doom-and-gloom," lead author E. Toby Kiers added. "There are clear cases in which mutualisms show a surprising ability to adapt to global change."
Even though the study of mutualistic relationships in nature is young, biologists have already discovered that every species is in one way or another involved in one or more partnerships, sometimes hundreds.
Some examples of mutualisms are wel
|Contact: Daniel Stolte|
University of Arizona