Cronin, J. T., J. Goddard II, A. Muthunayake and R. Shivaji. 2020. Modeling the effects of trait-mediated dispersal on coexistence of mutualists. Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering 17: 7838-7861.


Even though mutualistic interactions are ubiquitous in nature, we are still far from making good predictions about the fate of mutualistic communities under threats such as habitat fragmentation and climate change. Fragmentation often causes declines in abundance of a species due to increased susceptibility to edge effects between the remnant habitat patches and the lower quality \matrix" surrounding these focal patches. It has been previously argued that ecological communities are replete with trait-mediated indirect effects, and that these effects may, in some cases, contribute more to the dynamics of a population than direct density-mediated effects, e.g. lowering an organism’s fitness through competitive interactions. Although some studies have focused on trait-mediated behavior such as trait-mediated dispersal, in which an organism changes its dispersal patterns due to the presence of a another species, these studies have been mostly limited to predator-prey systems. Little is known regarding their effect on other interaction systems such as mutualism. In this paper, we explore the consequences of fragmentation and trait-mediated dispersal on the coexistence of a system of two mutualists by employing a model built upon the reaction diffusion framework. In an effort to distinguish between trait-mediated dispersal and density-mediated effects, we isolate the effects of trait-mediated dispersal on the mutualistic system by excluding any direct density-mediated effects in the model.

Our results demonstrate that fragmentation and trait-mediated dispersal can have important impacts on coexistence of mutualists. Specifically, one species can be better able to invade and persist than the other and be crucial to the success of the other species in the patch. Also, we note that matrix quality degradation can bring about a complete reversal of the role of which species is supporting the other’s persistence in the patch, even as the patch size remains constant. As most mutualistic relationships are identified on the basis of density-mediated effects, it is easily possible that such a trait-mediated effect may be overlooked. Our results are established via study of certain eigenvalue problems and the method of sub-supersolutions.

View or print this publication