Mutualism by Ron Toel

Mutualism as defined in the dictionary is an advantageous relationship between two different species in which neither is harmed and both benefit from the relationship. It is also the most interesting of the different types of relationships (at least to me). This very much like commensalism but in mutualism both benefit.

In the last article on commensalism, lichens were mentioned. The lichen which grows on trees is communalistic, however, the lichen itself is mutualistic. The fungus provides protection while algae provides the chlorophyll to manufacture the food .There are many, many, mutualistic relationships in the oceans…..The clown fish and the anemone is the famous and the most featured on TV. The fish is protected by the anemone while the anemone is fed either directly or indirectly by the fish. Anemones also maintain a mutualistic relationship with 3-4 species of crabs and as many or more shrimp, as well as, other fish.

Cleaning stations set up on the reef is another form of mutualism. This is when the cleaner shrimp set up on the coral and large fish swim up and pose for the shrimp to jump on the fish and pick the parasites from their scales and /or gills. There are also fish that are parasite pickers too. They perform the same function as the cleaner shrimp. One can see that all benefits in these relationships.

Sea urchins also have several mutualistic relationships. There are little fish that live within the spines of the urchin and gain protection. In return the fish bring food for the urchin to eat. There are also a few species shrimp that live either under or on the urchin. They gain protection and in return the clean the debris from the urchin.

There are several species of nudibranchs that have a pair of small shrimps that live on their surface. The shrimp eat the debris that collects on the nudibranchs as they make their way across the reef. So, both benefit.

One can also see gobies that live in small tunnels in the sand of the ocean bottom. These tunnels are made by a snapping shrimp. These two co-habitate in the tunnel. The fish provides protection by allowing the antennae of the shrimp to touch the fish at all times. The shrimp cleans the tunnel for the goby. When the goby finches to flee from danger the shrimp also goes quickly into the tunnel. This is a different type of relationship but it still is a mutualistic one.

Several types of sea jellies have little fish the live among the tentacles of the jellies. The fish find refuge there and draw unsuspecting fish into the grasp of the jellies.

I do not know of any mutualistic relationships in the higher animals except the oxpecker mentioned in a previous article. It picks the maggots as they appear on the animals back and that is their source of food. In doing so the bird is protected from many predators.

Another somewhat strange reliance is the long-legged shore birds and alligators. These birds place there rookery in trees surrounded by alligators. This provides a safe haven… from raccoons and other such animals while the babies are in the nest. The alligators get an occasional meal when a baby bird falls from the nest. It is a far-fetched relationship, much more advantageous to the bird than the gator. However, most of these long legged birds lay 3-4 eggs and usually only fledge 2, due to sibling rivalry. The others are pushed from the nest and become food for the gator.

I do not feel that a burrowing owl or ferret moving into a prairie dog town, or a bluebird taking over a woodpecker hole would fall into that category. I also do not know of any relationships in the insect world. There are so many insects and the relationship may exist, but if it does it is unknown to me.

In the plant world, other than the lichens, I only know of one strange relationship…..a variety of epiphytes, the bromeliads that grow in the rain forest, share their life with the poison arrow frog. These colorful amphibians live in the water that is collected in the bowl of the plant and their waste products provide nutrition for the plant. Can you imagine living is such a small territory?

 After reading these articles can you understand why Wayne and I find the natural world so amazing? We have each not only taken images of it for thirty years but we have observed and studied it as well. When one puts forth this effort, one learns many things about the interdependence of many different species, and how delicate all life on this planet is. If one is a true student of the natural world, the more one learns the more one sees and observes, thus create a spiral effect of wanting to learn even more.

Also in learning these things from observation, one is studying other aspects of the animal behavior. These things, all make one a better photographer. The two most important things of a nature photographer are shoot and observe.

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1 Response to Mutualism by Ron Toel

  1. Pingback: Paying Homage | Wayne Nelson's Earth Images Blog

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