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16.4: Community Interactions

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Lesson Objectives

  • State the significance of the community in ecology, and list types of community interactions.
  • Define predation, and explain how it affects population growth and evolution.
  • Describe competition, and outline how it can lead to extinction or specialization of species.
  • Define symbiosis, and identify major types of symbiotic relationships.
  • Describe ecological succession, and explain how it relates to the concept of a climax community.

Introduction

Biomes as different as grasslands and estuaries share something extremely important. They have populations of interacting species. Moreover, species interact in the same basic ways in all biomes. For example, all biomes have some species that prey on other species for food. Species interactions are important biotic factors in ecological systems. The focus of study of species interactions is the community.

What Is a Community?

In ecology, a community is the biotic component of an ecosystem. It consists of populations of different species that live in the same area and interact with one another. Like abiotic factors, such as climate or water depth, species interactions in communities are important biotic factors in natural selection. The interactions help shape the evolution of the interacting species. Three major types of community interactions are predation, competition, and symbiosis.

Predation

Predation is a relationship in which members of one species (the predator) consume members of other species (the prey). The lions and cape buffalo in Figure 1 are classic examples of predators and prey. In addition to the lions, there is another predator in this figure. Can you find it? The other predator is the cape buffalo. Like the lion, it consumes prey species, in this case species of grasses. Predator-prey relationships account for most energy transfers in food chains and webs (see the Principles of Ecology chapter).

An adult male lion and a lion cub feed on the carcass of a South African cape buffalo.

Types of Predators

The lions in Figure 1 are true predators. In true predation, the predator kills its prey. Some true predators, like lions, catch large prey and then dismember and chew the prey before eating it. Other true predators catch small prey and swallow it whole. For example, snakes swallow mice whole.

Some predators are not true predators because they do not kill their prey. Instead, they graze on their prey. In grazing, a predator eats part of its prey but rarely kills it. For example, deer graze on plants but do not usually kill them. Animals may also be “grazed” upon. For example, female mosquitoes suck tiny amounts of blood from animals but do not harm them, although they can transmit disease.

Predation and Populations

True predators help control the size of prey populations. This is especially true when a predator preys on just one species. Generally, the predator-prey relationship keeps the population size of both species in balance. This is shown in Figure 2. Every change in population size of one species is followed by a corresponding change in the population size of the other species. Generally, predator-prey populations keep fluctuating in this way as long as there is no outside interference.

As the prey population increases, the predator population starts to rise. With more predators, the prey population starts to decrease, which, in turn, causes the predator population to decline. This pattern keeps repeating. There is always a slight lag between changes in one population and changes in the other population.

Some predator species are known as keystone species, because they play such an important role in their community. Introduction or removal of a keystone species has a drastic effect on its prey population. This, in turn, affects populations of many other species in the community. For example, some sea star species are keystone species in coral reef communities. The sea stars prey on mussels and sea urchins, which have no other natural predators. If sea stars are removed from a coral reef community, mussel and sea urchin populations would have explosive growth, which in turn would drive out most other species and destroy the reef community.

Sometimes humans deliberately introduce predators into an area to control pests. This is called biological pest control. One of the earliest pests controlled in this way was a type of insect, called a scale insect. The scale insect was accidentally introduced into California from Australia in the late 1800s. It had no natural predators in California and was destroying the state’s citrus trees. Then, its natural predator in Australia, a type of beetle, was introduced into California in an effort to control the scale insect. Within a few years, the insect was completely controlled by the predator. Unfortunately, biological pest control does not always work this well. Pest populations often rebound after a period of decline.

Adaptations to Predation

Both predators and prey have adaptations to predation. Predator adaptations help them capture prey. Prey adaptations help them avoid predators. A common adaptation in both predator and prey species is camouflage, or disguise. One way of using camouflage is to blend in with the background. Several examples are shown in Figure 3.

Can you see the crab in the photo on the left? It is camouflaged with algae. The preying mantis in the middle photo looks just like the dead leaves in the background. The stripes on the zebras in the right photo blend the animals together, making it hard to see where one zebra ends and another begins.

Another way of using camouflage is to look like a different, more dangerous animal. Using appearance to “mimic” another animal is called mimicry. Figure 4 shows an example of mimicry. The moth in the figure has markings on its wings that look like the eyes of an owl. When a predator comes near, the moth suddenly displays the markings. This startles the predator and gives the moth time to fly away.

The moth on the left mimics the owl on the right. This “disguise” helps protect the moth from predators.

Some prey species have adaptations that are the opposite of camouflage. They have bright colors or other highly noticeable traits that serve as a warning for their predators to stay away. For example, some of the most colorful butterflies are poisonous to birds, so birds have learned to avoid eating them. By being so colorful, the butterflies are more likely to be noticed—and avoided—by their predators.

Predation, Natural Selection, and Co-evolution

Adaptations to predation come about through natural selection (see the Evolution_in_Populations chapter). When a prey organism avoids a predator, it has higher fitness than members of the same species that were killed by the predator. The organism survives longer and may produce more offspring. As a result, traits that helped the prey organism avoid the predator gradually become more common in the prey population.

Evolution of traits in the prey species leads to evolution of corresponding traits in the predator species. This is called co-evolution. In co-evolution, each species is an important factor in the natural selection of the other species. Predator-prey co-evolution is illustrated by rough-skinned newts and common garter snakes, both shown in Figure 5. Through natural selection, newts evolved the ability to produce a strong toxin. In response, garter snakes evolved the ability to resist the toxin, so they could still safely prey upon newts. Then, newts evolved the ability to produce higher levels of toxin. This was followed by garter snakes evolving resistance to the higher levels. In short, the predator-prey relationship led to an evolutionary “arms race,” resulting in extremely high levels of toxin in newts.

The rough-skinned newt on the left is highly toxic to other organisms. Common garter snakes, like the one on the right, have evolved resistance to the toxin.

Competition

Competition is a relationship between organisms that strive for the same limited resources. The resources might be food, nesting sites, or territory. Two different types of competition are intraspecific and interspecific competition.

  • Intraspecific competition occurs between members of the same species. For example, two male birds of the same species might compete for mates in the same territory. Intraspecific competition is a necessary factor in natural selection. It leads to adaptive changes in a species through time (see the Evolution in Populations chapter).
  • Interspecific competition occurs between members of different species. For example, two predator species might compete for the same prey. Interspecific competition takes place in communities of interacting species. It is the type of competition referred to in the rest of this section.

Interspecific Competition and Extinction

When populations of different species in a community depend on the same resources, there may not be enough resources to go around. If one species has a disadvantage, such as more predators, it may get fewer of the necessary resources. As a result, members of that species are less likely to survive, and the species will have a higher death rate than the other species. Fewer offspring will be produced and the species may eventually die out in the area.

In nature, interspecific competition has often led to the extinction of species. Many other extinctions have occurred when humans introduced new species into areas where they had no predators. For example, rabbits were introduced into Australia in the mid-1800s for sport hunting. Rabbits had no predators in Australia and quickly spread throughout the continent. Many species of Australian mammals could not successfully compete with rabbits and went extinct.

Interspecific Competition and Specialization

Another possible outcome of interspecific competition is the evolution of traits that create distinct differences among the competing species. Through natural selection, competing species can become more specialized. This allows them to live together without competing for the same resources. An example is the anolis lizard. Many species of anolis live and prey on insects in tropical rainforests. Competition among the different species led to the evolution of specializations. Some anolis evolved specializations to prey on insects in leaf litter on the forest floor. Others evolved specializations to prey on insects on the branches of trees. This allowed the different species of anolis to co-exist without competing.

Symbiotic Relationships

Symbiosis is a close association between two species in which at least one species benefits. For the other species, the outcome of the association may be positive, negative, or neutral. There are three basic types of symbiotic relationships: mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.

Mutualism

Mutualism is a symbiotic relationship in which both species benefit. Lichen is a good example. A lichen is not a single organism but a fungus and an alga. The fungus absorbs water from air and minerals from rock or soil. The alga uses the water and minerals to make food for itself and the fungus. Another example involves goby fish and shrimp (see Figure 6). The nearly blind shrimp and the fish spend most of their time together. The shrimp maintains a burrow in the sand in which both the goby and the shrimp live. When a predator comes near, the fish touches the shrimp with its tail as a warning. Then, both fish and shrimp retreat to the burrow until the predator is gone. Each gains from this mutualistic relationship: the shrimp gets a warning of approaching danger, and the fish gets a safe home and a place to lay its eggs.

The multicolored shrimp in the front and the green goby fish behind it have a mutualistic relationship. The shrimp shares its burrow with the fish, and the fish warns the shrimp when predators are near. Both species benefit from the relationship.

Co-evolution often occurs in species involved in mutualistic relationships. Many examples are provided by flowering plants and the species that pollinate them. Plants have evolved flowers with traits that promote pollination by particular species. Pollinator species, in turn, have evolved traits that help them obtain pollen or nectar from certain species of flowers. For example, the plant with tube-shaped flowers shown in Figure 7 co-evolved with hummingbirds. The birds evolved long, narrow beaks that allowed them to sip nectar from the tubular blooms.

This hummingbird’s long slender beak and the large tubular flowers of the plant are a good match, which resulted from a long period of co-evolution. Their relationship is an example of mutualism. The hummingbird uses nectar from the flowers for food and pollinates the flowers in the process.

Commensalism

Commensalism is a symbiotic relationship in which one species benefits while the other species is not affected. In commensalism, one animal typically uses another for a purpose other than food. For example, mites attach themselves to larger flying insects to get a “free ride,” and hermit crabs use the shells of dead snails for shelter.

Co-evolution explains some commensal relationships. An example is the human species and some of the species of bacteria that live inside humans. Through natural selection, many species of bacteria have evolved the ability to live inside the human body without harming it.

Parasitism

Parasitism is a symbiotic relationship in which one species (the parasite) benefits while the other species (the host) is harmed. Some parasites live on the surface of their host. Others live inside their host, entering through a break in the skin or in food or water. For example, roundworms are parasites of the human intestine. The worms produce huge numbers of eggs, which are passed in the host’s feces to the environment. Other humans may be infected by swallowing the eggs in contaminated food or water. This usually happens only in places with poor sanitation.

Some parasites eventually kill their host. However, most parasites do not. Parasitism in which the host is not killed is a successful way of life and very common in nature. About half of all animal species are parasitic in at least one stage of their lifecycle. Many plants and fungi are parasitic during some stages, as well. Not surprisingly, most animals are hosts to one or more parasites.

Species in parastic relationships are likely to undergo co-evolution. Host species evolve defenses against parasites, and parasites evolve ways to evade host defenses. For example, many plants have evolved toxins that poison plant parasites such as fungi and bacteria. The microscopic parasite that causes malaria in humans has evolved a way to evade the human immune system. It hides out in the host’s blood cells or liver where the immune system cannot find it.

Ecological Succession

Ecological succession is the process by which a whole community of populations changes through time. It occurs following a disturbance that creates unoccupied areas for colonization. The first colonizer species are called pioneer species. They change the environment and pave the way for other species to move into the area. Succession occurs in two different ways, depending on the starting conditions: primary succession and secondary succession.

Primary Succession

Primary succession occurs in an area that has never been colonized before. Generally, the area is nothing but bare rock. This type of environment can come about in a number of ways, including:

  • Lava can flow from a volcano and harden into rock.
  • A glacier can retreat and leave behind bare rock.
  • A landslide can uncover a large area of bare rock.

After the disturbance, pioneer species move in first. They include bacteria and lichens that can live on bare rock. Along with wind and water, these pioneer species help to weather the rock and form soil. Once soil begins to form, other plants can move in. At first, the plants include grasses and other species that can grow in thin, poor soil. As more plants grow and die, organic matter is added to the soil. This improves the soil and helps it hold water. The improved soil allows shrubs and trees to move into the area. An example of primary succession is shown in Figure 8.

On an island near New Zealand, bare rocks from a volcanic eruption are slowly being colonized by pioneer species.

Secondary Succession

Secondary succession occurs in a formerly inhabited area that was disturbed. The disturbance could be a fire, flood, or human action such as logging or farming. Secondary succession can occur faster than primary succession because the soil is already in place. In secondary succession, the pioneer species are plants that are adapted to exploit disturbances rather than bare rock. They typically include plants such as grasses, birch trees, and fireweed. Organic matter from the pioneer species improves the soil so other trees and plants can move into the area. An example of secondary succession is shown in Figure 9.

This formerly cultivated farm field in Poland is reverting to deciduous forest in the process of secondary succession.

Climax Communities

Many early ecologists thought that a community always went through a predictable series of stages during succession. They also thought that the end result of succession was a final stage called a climax community. The type of climax community was believed to be determined mainly by climate. For example, in mild, wet temperate climates, evergreen rainforests were thought to be the predictable end result of succession. Climax communities were also thought to be very biodiverse. This characteristic, in turn, was believed to make them stable, or resistant to change.

Today, most ecologists think that change, rather than stability, is more characteristic of ecological systems. They argue that most communities are disturbed too often to reach a climax community stage. They also argue that high biodiversity does not always make a community stable. Some communities that have low biodiversity, such as salt marshes, are very resistant to change. On the other hand, some communities that have high biodiversity, such as coral reefs, are easily affected by disturbances. High biodiversity may increase species interactions. This, in turn, may make species more interdependent and communities more likely to change when they are disturbed.

Lesson Summary

  • A community is the biotic component of an ecosystem. It consists of populations of interacting species. Types of community interactions are predation, competition, and symbiosis.
  • Predation is a relationship in which members of one species consume members of other species. Predation influences population sizes and co-evolution of predator and prey species.
  • Competition is a relationship between organisms that strive for the same limited resources. Interspecific competition often leads to extinction of one species. However, it may lead to greater specialization of the species, allowing them to co-exist without competing.
  • Symbiosis is a close association between species in which at least one species benefits. Types of symbiotic relationships include mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.
  • Ecological succession is the process by which a whole community changes through time. It occurs following a disturbance. A stable climax community may or may not be the predictable end result of succession.

Review Questions

  1. In ecology, what is a community?
  2. Define predation and give an example of a predator and its prey.
  3. What are two possible outcomes of interspecific competition?
  4. List three basic types of symbiotic relationships.
  5. What is ecological succession and when does it occur?
  6. Assume that a destructive beetle was accidentally introduced to California from Europe. The beetle has no natural predators in California and is becoming a major pest. Describe how biological pest control might be used to control this beetle.
  7. A forest was recently disturbed, and several pioneer species have moved in. Which type of ecological succession is taking place? How do you know?
  8. Why do species interactions often lead to co-evolution of the species involved? Give an example to illustrate your answer.
  9. Summarize how ideas about ecological succession and climax communities have changed.

Further Reading / Supplemental Links

  • Robert Poulin and Serge Morand, Parasite Biodiversity. Smithsonian, 2005.
  • Mark Ross and David Reesor, Predator: Life and Death in the African Bush. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2007.
  • Bernhard Stadler and Tony Dixon, Mutualism: Ants and Their Insect Partners. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Marlene Zuk, Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are. Harcourt, 2007.
  • http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/292/5519/1115

Vocabulary

biological pest control
Deliberate introduction of a predator species into an area in order to control a pest species.
camouflage
Common adaptation in predator and prey species that involves disguise.
climax community
Final stage of ecological succession.
co-evolution
Evolution of interacting species in which each species is an important factor in the natural selection of the other species.
commensalism
Symbiotic relationship in which one species benefits while the other species is not affected.
community
Biotic component of an ecosystem.
competition
Relationship between organisms that strive for the same limited resources.
ecological succession
Process by which a whole community changes through time following a disturbance.
grazing
Type of predation in which the predator eats part of its prey but rarely kills it.
intraspecific competition
Competition between members of the same species.
interspecific competition
Competition between members of different species.
keystone species
Predator species that plays an important role in the community by controlling the prey population and, indirectly, the populations of many other species in the community.
mimicry
Using appearance to “mimic” another animal.
mutualism
Symbiotic relationship in which both species benefit.
parasitism
Symbiotic relationship in which one species (the parasite) benefits while the other species (the host) is harmed.
pioneer species
First colonizer species in an area undergoing ecological succession.
predation
Relationship in which members of one species (the predator) consume members of other species (the prey).
primary succession
Ecological succession that occurs in an area that has never been colonized before.
secondary succession
Ecological succession that occurs in a formerly inhabited area that was disturbed.
symbiosis
Close association between two species in which at least one species benefits.
true predation
Type of predation in which the predator kills its prey.

Points to Consider

The size and growth of populations in a community is influenced by species interactions. For example, predator-prey relationships control the population growth of both predator and prey species.

  • How would populations grow without these influences?
  • What other factors do you think might affect population growth?
  • What factors do you think may have affected the growth of the human population?

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