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Costs, benefits, and loss of vertically transmitted symbionts affect host population dynamics


K. M. Yule, Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA. E-mail:


The costs and benefits of symbiotic interactions may vary with host and symbiont ontogeny. Effects of symbionts at different stages of host development or on different host demographic rates do not contribute equally to fitness. Although rarely applied, a population dynamics approach that integrates over the host life cycle is therefore necessary for capturing the net costs or benefits and, thus, the mutualistic or parasitic nature of symbioses. Using the native, disturbance-specialist grass Agrostis hyemalis, we asked how a symbiotic endophyte affected the population dynamics of its host and how imperfect vertical transmission influenced symbiont frequency in a late successional environment. A size-structured integral projection model (IPM) parameterized with experimental field data showed that greater rates of individual growth and reproduction for endophyte-symbiotic (E+) hosts outweighed their lower rates of survival, leading to a net positive effect of symbiosis on equilibrium plant population growth (slower rate of extinction). Given that populations under going successional transitions are unlikely to be at an equilibrium size structure, we also conducted transient analysis that showed an initial short-term cost to endophyte symbiosis. We used a megamatrix approach to link E− and E+ IPMs via imperfect vertical transmission and found that this parameter strongly influenced the frequency of symbiosis via complex interactions with host demographic rates. Overall, our population dynamics approach improves the ability to characterize the outcome of symbiotic interactions, and results suggest that particular attention should be paid to interactions between the rate of vertical transmission and host demography.