SPECIALIZATION AND RESOURCE TRADE: BIOLOGICAL MARKETS AS A MODEL OF MUTUALISMS

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Abstract

Most ecological theory suggests that the conditions that would give rise to the evolution of mutualisms are rare. In contrast, empirical evidence suggests that mutualisms are common. Thus, there appears to be a need for additional theory to describe conditions under which mutualisms may evolve. Furthermore, there is a need for theory to predict the conditions under which we expect interactions to remain mutualistic once established. We adopt a biological market approach to present a model for the evolution of resource exchange mutualisms, using the relationship between plants and mycorrhizal fungi as an example. We apply the economic theory of relative advantage to investigate the conditions under which species ought to specialize and trade. A simple economic analogy demonstrates that, in a two-resource model, a species that is relatively efficient at acquiring one resource would benefit from specialization on acquisition of that resource accompanied by trade for the other resource. The theory of relative advantage extends this prediction to show that specialization and trade confer an advantage even for species that are relatively poor resource competitors for both resources. Under the assumptions of our model, we show that two species ought to specialize in the acquisition of one resource and trade for a second resource as long as each species perceives different relative acquisition costs for the two resources. We also describe the conditions under which changing resource availabilities will benefit, or harm, both partners in a mutualism. We predict conditions conducive to mutualisms to occur when the costs of resource exchange are low, the opportunity to ensure fair trade is high, or the cost of tolerating cheaters is low. Market models such as ours may help to explain the conditionality often observed in mutualisms.

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