Mutualisms, or reciprocally beneficial interspecific interactions, constitute the foundation of many ecological communities and agricultural systems. Mutualisms come in different forms, from pairwise interactions to extremely diverse communities, and they are continually challenged with exploitation by nonmutualistic community members (exploiters). Thus, understanding how mutualisms persist remains an essential question in ecology. Theory suggests that high species richness and functional redundancy could promote mutualism persistence in complex mutualistic communities. Using a yeast system (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), we experimentally show that communities with the greatest mutualist richness and functional redundancy are nearly two times more likely to survive exploitation than are simple communities. Persistence increased because diverse communities were better able to mitigate the negative effects of competition with exploiters. Thus, large mutualistic networks may be inherently buffered from exploitation.
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