Get access

Mutualisms in a changing world: an evolutionary perspective


Correspondence: E-mail:


Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1459–1474


There is growing concern that rapid environmental degradation threatens mutualistic interactions. Because mutualisms can bind species to a common fate, mutualism breakdown has the potential to expand and accelerate effects of global change on biodiversity loss and ecosystem disruption. The current focus on the ecological dynamics of mutualism under global change has skirted fundamental evolutionary issues. Here, we develop an evolutionary perspective on mutualism breakdown to complement the ecological perspective, by focusing on three processes: (1) shifts from mutualism to antagonism, (2) switches to novel partners and (3) mutualism abandonment. We then identify the evolutionary factors that may make particular classes of mutualisms especially susceptible or resistant to breakdown and discuss how communities harbouring mutualisms may be affected by these evolutionary responses. We propose a template for evolutionary research on mutualism resilience and identify conservation approaches that may help conserve targeted mutualisms in the face of environmental change.