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Cheating in mutualism: defection of Yucca baccata against its yucca moths


John F.Addicott Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, Canada. E-mail:


Yucca baccata cheats in its obligate pollination/seed predation mutualism with yucca moths. Although all individuals use the pollination services of yucca moths, many individuals do not reciprocate in sustaining yucca moth larvae. Cheating is associated with the morphology of Y. baccata pistils. In Y. baccata, the apex of the ovary contains only inviable ovules, and there are two distinct flower types, one of which has twice as many potentially viable ovules as the other. Because yucca moths oviposit at the apex of Y. baccata ovaries, larvae in flowers with few viable ovules fail to encounter viable ovules and therefore perish. Inflorescences generally have just one flower type, implying that some individuals cheat whereas others maintain the yucca moth population. Our most surprising observation, however, is that although the proportion of cheaters should be low, over 70% of Y. baccata individuals cheat. We hypothesize that both density- and frequency-dependent processes maintain a balance of cheaters and noncheaters in this system.

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