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The dominant exploiters of the fig/pollinator mutualism vary across continents, but their costs fall consistently on the male reproductive function of figs


James M. Cook, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, RG6 6AS, UK. E-mail:


1. Fig trees (Moraceae: Ficus) are keystone species, whose ecosystem function relies on an obligate mutualism with wasps (Chalcidoidea: Agaonidae) that enter fig syconia to pollinate. Each female flower produces one seed (fig female reproductive function), unless it also receives a wasp egg, in which case it supports a wasp. Fig male reproductive function requires both male flowers and pollinator offspring, which are the only vectors of fig pollen.

2. The mutualism is exploited by other wasps that lay eggs but provide no pollination service. Most of these non-pollinating fig wasps (NPFWs) do not enter syconia, but lay eggs through the wall with long ovipositors. Some are gall-makers, while others are parasitoids or lethal inquilines of other wasps.

3. Ficus is pan-tropical and contains >750 fig species. However, NPFW communities vary across fig lineages and continents and their effects on the mutualism may also vary. This provides a series of natural experiments to investigate how the costs to a keystone mutualism vary geographically.

4. We made the first detailed study of the costs of NPFWs in a fig (Ficus obliqua G. Forst) from the endemic Australasian section Malvanthera. In contrast to the communities associated with section Americana in the New World, wasps from the subfamily Sycoryctinae (Chalcidoidea: Pteromalidae) dominated this community.

5. These sycoryctine wasps have a negative impact on pollinator offspring numbers, but not on seed production. Consequently, while the NPFW fauna varies greatly at high taxonomic levels across continents, we show that the consistent main effect of locally dominant exploiters of the mutualism is to reduce fig male reproductive function.