In ecology, a biological interaction is the effect that a pair of organisms living together in a community have on each other. They can be either of the same species (intraspecific interactions), or of different species (interspecific interactions). These effects may be short-term, like pollination and predation, or long-term; both often strongly influence the evolution of the species involved. A long-term interaction is called a symbiosis. Symbioses range from mutualism, beneficial to both partners, to competition, harmful to both partners. Interactions can be indirect, through intermediaries such as shared resources or common enemies. This type of relationship can be shown by net effect based on individual effects on both organisms arising out of relationship.
Although biological interactions, more or less individually, were studied earlier, Edward Haskell (1949) gave a integrative approach to the thematic, proposing a classification of "co-actions", later adopted by biologists as "interactions". Close and long-term interactions are described as symbiosis; symbioses that are mutually beneficial are called mutualistic.
Short-term interactions, including predation and pollination, are extremely important in ecology and evolution. These are short-lived in terms of the duration of a single interaction: a predator kills and eats a prey; a pollinator transfers pollen from one flower to another; but they are extremely durable in terms of their influence on the evolution of both partners. As a result, the partners coevolve.
In predation, one organism, the predator, kills and eats another organism, its prey. Predators are adapted and often highly specialized for hunting, with acute senses such as vision, hearing, or smell. Many predatory animals, both vertebrate and invertebrate, have sharp claws or jaws to grip, kill, and cut up their prey. Other adaptations include stealth and aggressive mimicry that improve hunting efficiency. Predation has a powerful selective effect on prey, causing them to develop antipredator adaptations such as warning coloration, alarm calls and other signals, camouflage and defensive spines and chemicals. Predation has been a major driver of evolution since at least the Cambrian period.
In pollination, pollinators including insects (entomophily), some birds (ornithophily), and some bats, transfer pollen from a male flower part to a female flower part, enabling fertilisation, in return for a reward of pollen or nectar. The partners have coevolved through geological time; in the case of insects and flowering plants, the coevolution has continued for over 100 million years. Insect-pollinated flowers are adapted with shaped structures, bright colours, patterns, scent, nectar, and sticky pollen to attract insects, guide them to pick up and deposit pollen, and reward them for the service. Pollinator insects like bees are adapted to detect flowers by colour, pattern, and scent, to collect and transport pollen (such as with bristles shaped to form pollen baskets on their hind legs), and to collect and process nectar (in the case of honey bees, making and storing honey). The adaptations on each side of the interaction match the adaptations on the other side, and have been shaped by natural selection on their effectiveness of pollination.
Symbiosis: long-term interactions
The six possible types of symbiosis are mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, neutralism, amensalism, and competition. These are distinguished by the degree of benefit or harm they cause to each partner.
Mutualism is an interaction between two or more species, where species derive a mutual benefit, for example an increased carrying capacity. Similar interactions within a species are known as co-operation. Mutualism may be classified in terms of the closeness of association, the closest being symbiosis, which is often confused with mutualism. One or both species involved in the interaction may be obligate, meaning they cannot survive in the short or long term without the other species. Though mutualism has historically received less attention than other interactions such as predation, it is an important subject in ecology. Examples include cleaning symbiosis, gut flora, Müllerian mimicry, and nitrogen fixation by bacteria in the root nodules of legumes.
Commensalism benefits one organism and the other organism is neither benefited nor harmed. It occurs when one organism takes benefits by interacting with another organism by which the host organism is not affected. A good example is a remora living with a shark. Remoras eat leftover food from the shark. The shark is not affected in the process, as remoras eat only leftover food of the shark, which does not deplete the shark's resources.
Parasitism is a relationship between species, where one organism, the parasite, lives on or in another organism, the host, causing it some harm, and is adapted structurally to this way of life. The parasite either feeds on the host, or, in the case of intestinal parasites, consumes some of its food.
Neutralism (a term introduced by Eugene Odum) describes the relationship between two species that interact but do not affect each other. Examples of true neutralism are virtually impossible to prove; the term is in practice used to describe situations where interactions are negligible or insignificant.
Amensalism (a term introduced by Haskell) is an interaction where an organism inflicts harm to another organism without any costs or benefits received by itself. A clear case of amensalism is where sheep or cattle trample grass. Whilst the presence of the grass causes negligible detrimental effects to the animal's hoof, the grass suffers from being crushed. Amensalism is often used to describe strongly asymmetrical competitive interactions, such as has been observed between the Spanish ibex and weevils of the genus Timarcha which feed upon the same type of shrub. Whilst the presence of the weevil has almost no influence on food availability, the presence of ibex has an enormous detrimental effect on weevil numbers, as they consume significant quantities of plant matter and incidentally ingest the weevils upon it.
Competition can be defined as an interaction between organisms or species, in which the fitness of one is lowered by the presence of another. Competition is often for a resource such as food, water, or territory in limited supply, or for access to females for reproduction. Competition among members of the same species is known as intraspecific competition, while competition between individuals of different species is known as interspecific competition. According to the competitive exclusion principle, species less suited to compete for resources should either adapt or die out. According to evolutionary theory, this competition within and between species for resources plays a critical role in natural selection.
- Symbiosis was formerly used to mean a mutualism.
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- Snow, B. K. & Snow, D. W. (1988). Birds and berries: a study of an ecological interaction. Poyser, London ISBN 0-85661-049-6