Extreme specificity in obligate mutualism—A role for competition?

Renuka Agarwal, David M. Althoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Obligate mutualisms, reciprocally obligate beneficial interactions, are some of the most important mutualisms on the planet, providing the basis for the evolution of the eukaryotic cell, the formation and persistence of terrestrial ecosystems and the establishment and expansion of coral reefs. In addition, these mutualisms can also lead to the diversification of interacting partner species. Accompanying this diversification is a general pattern of a high degree of specificity among interacting partner species. A survey of obligate mutualisms demonstrates that greater than half of these systems have only one or two mutualist species on each side of the interaction. This is in stark contrast to facultative mutualisms that can have dozens of interacting mutualist species. We posit that the high degree of specificity in obligate mutualisms is driven by competition within obligate mutualist guilds that limits species richness. Competition may be particularly potent in these mutualisms because mutualistic partners are totally dependent on each other's fitness gains, which may fuel interspecific competition. Theory and the limited number of empirical studies testing for the role of competition in determining specificity suggest that competition may be an important force that fuels the high degree of specificity. Further empirical research is needed to dissect the relative roles of trait complementarity, mutualism regulation, and competition among mutualist guild members in determining mutualism specificity at local scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere11628
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2024


  • community structure
  • competitive exclusion
  • guilds
  • specificity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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