One of the things I really enjoyed discovering during this course is the endless number of ways that all kinds of individuals in nature are collaborating. Wasps pollinating fig trees in exchange for shelter, shrimps looking for food while their goby soul-mate watches for predators, vampire bats feeding each other in times of need, groups of Greater Anis sharing a nest, etc. Nature sure has a lot of imagination when it comes to promoting networking. What fascinated me even more is how all these different relationships could be studied in the same way as a human community. As a major theme in my master is community-based forest management (CBFM), I couldn’t help make some (albeit twisted) parallels between my subject and the different types of mutualism we stumbled upon during the course.
For example, you can ask, about a community-based forest management system, as well as a wasp-fig one:
- Who is cheating? For the human part, it could be somebody chopping off all the trees in the community forest and watching them burn all alone in their basement. For the fig and wasps, it could be a wasp that doesn’t care to pollinate the fig that is sheltering it.
- How is this individual going to be punished? In our human example, the cheater could be excluded from all decisions regarding the management of the forest. In the fig & wasp situation, figs that are not pollinated could abort, making the cheating wasp’s home not so cozy all of a sudden.
- What are the trade-offs to collaborating? For our humans, following the rules might keep people from taking all the wood for themselves, which means less short-term individual gain. However, if everybody does this effort of sharing and making sure that the wood is harvested sustainably, there will be wood forever! For the fig, losing some fruit space in favour of wasp eggs is the price to pay to continue being pollinated. An interesting question here is, what kind of proportion between eggs and fruits is ideal for both the wasps and the fig trees?
In a broader perspective than a community sharing a forest, mutualism questions can also be translated into an economic sciences problem: how do two countries define the terms of a trade agreement? Egbert Leigh (2010), whom we met in Barro Colorado Island, actually wrote a very interesting article on this whole comparison, exposing how any species, human or not, will only engage in collaboration if, in the end, there is a comparative advantage. It’s weird to think that all those intricate relationships we have developed amongst humans had already been invented by tiny organisms way before we were even created as a species (hipster organisms, doing mutualism before it was cool). Should economists and people interested in CBFM tap into mutualism studies to find new strategies to collaborate between humans? I like this idea a lot (especially if I can push it far enough so that going snorkelling around coral reefs could become a part of my community-based forest management studies…).
 If, like me 2 weeks ago, you don’t have the background on the fig and wasp relationship, here is, roughly, the fig and wasp life cycle: Soon-to-be-mama fig wasp flies into a young fig; inside this fig, there are tons of tiny flowers, waiting to be pollinated; Mama wasp gets cozy in her fig, using some flowers to lay her eggs, pollinating others with pollen she got before entering; the flowers gradually turn into fruit, or newborn wasps; newborn girls and boys give each other some love (often it seems there is more than one mama wasp in a fig, so it’s not all incest); the boys stay with their mama forever, the girls grab some pollen and go on a lifetime adventure to a new fig. And that is how figs and wasps are made.
Leigh, E. G. (2010). The evolution of mutualism. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23(12), 2507–2528. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02114.x
A great talk on figs and wasps by Charlotte Jader!