New Definition Shows Cheating in Mutualisms is Rare

A beneficial exchange between two unrelated individuals is the foundation of a mutualistic relationship, and “cheating”, where one individual takes advantage of the other, can lead to the collapse of a mutualism. While previously thought to have been widespread, new research shows that cheating is actually rare.

Until now, the specifics of cheating have been widely debated and a multitude of scientific definitions exist which made it difficult to identify a relationship where cheating is present. “Everyone thinks they know what cheating means,” says Maren Friesen, “but when they dig down they realize they are actually defining it in very different ways.”

To end this confusion, a new definition of cheating in mutualism was developed by a NCEAS Working Group led by Emily Jones and Maren Friesen and published in Ecology Letters. This fitness-based definition creates a common framework to unite empirical and theoretical work and makes comparisons across species and studies possible.

“When we applied our new definition to empirical data we found that there is actually very little solid evidence of cheating in mutualisms where cheating has been put forth as a phenomenon” says Friesen. She suggests that people should remain skeptical about the prevalence of cheating in mutualisms until more data is collected.

This paper not only provides a new definition of cheating but also explicitly lays out how to conduct the empirical work necessary to definitively show whether or not cheating is occurring. By taking a nuanced quantitative approach to mutualism, this Working Group has created an opportunity to better understand mutualistic interactions and how they tie into broader ecosystem services.

Cheaters must prosper: reconciling theoretical and empirical perspectives on cheating in mutualism
Emily I. Jones, Michelle E. Afkhami, Erol Akcay, Judith L. Bronstein, Redouan Bshary, Megan E. Frederickson, Katy D. Heath, Jason Hoeksema, Joshua H. Ness, Sabrina Pankey, Stephanie S. Porter, Joel L. Sachs, Klara Scharnagl, Maren L. Friesen
Ecology Letters, September 2015, DOI: 10.1111/ele.12507


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Posted on September 16, 2015