Mutualism, when two species both benefit from their relationship with each other, is important for the survival of many organisms. There is ongoing debate regarding the importance of cheating in such relationships, with many believing that cheating is both widespread and highly threatening to the evolutionary persistence of mutualism.
A working group of top mutualism researchers convened to develop an evolutionary definition of cheating, and in a new Ecology Letters article they argue that to capture the threat of cheating to mutualism, cheaters must prosper and in so doing harm their partners’ fitness. Under this definition, they find that evidence of cheating in nature is scarce, therefore challenging the widespread assumption that cheating is rampant.
“We hope our framework will stimulate more mechanistic studies that link mutualistic exchanges to fitness,” said lead author Dr. Maren Friesen.
“Recognizing that not all bad partners are necessarily cheaters might also help us understand human interactions better,” added co-lead author Emily Jones.