From parasitism to mutualism: partner control in asymmetric interactions


  • Editor, J. C. Koella

Rufus A. Johnstone E-mail:


Intraspecific cooperation and interspecific mutualism often feature a marked asymmetry in the scope for exploitation. Cooperation may nevertheless persist despite one-sided opportunities for cheating, provided that the partner vulnerable to exploitation has sufficient control over the duration of interaction. Here we develop a simple, game theoretical model of this form of partner control. We show that as a victim's ability to terminate an encounter increases, selection can favour reduced exploitation, resulting in a switch from parasitism to mutualism. For a given level of control, exploitation is likely to be less intense and the interaction to last longer when there are greater mutualistic benefits to be gained, and when the benefits of cheating are lower relative to the costs inflicted on the victim. Observations of interactions between cleaner-fish and non-predatory species of client are shown to match these predictions.