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Animals Don't Cheat: Why Nature's Partnerships Are Perfect

Sep 28, 2015 01:52 AM EDT

You may think that the natural world is a place where only the strong and selfish can thrive. However, new research on mutual partnerships between species has shown that this is not always the case. In fact, species who depend on one another rarely ever 'cheat' or take advantage of their partners to survive.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Ecology Letters, which details how even 'low quality' partnerships don't show signs of cheating in nature, despite the fact that doing so could give them a much-desired edge against competitors.

However, that's not to say that most mutualistic species aren't "bending the rules," if you will.

"By definition, a behavior is only cheating if it provides one partner with an advantage and also imposes a disadvantage on the other partner," Emily Jones, an evolutionary ecologist with Rice University, explained in a statement. "We found that most previous definitions were focused on just one side of the interaction. People have tended to be narrowly focused on whether one partner was either giving less of a resource or taking more from the other partner, but neither of those qualifies as cheating unless the other partner is harmed." (Scroll to read on...)

Jones added that a popular view is that mutualism actually functions more like 'mutual exploitation," where two species are so aggressively exploiting the other that they come to an impasse, gaining more benefits than harm for both parties. However, after taking a closer look at common partnerships in nature, the ecologist and her colleagues are arguing that this is not exactly accurate.

"There is a healthy theoretical debate about the conditions that underlie and promote stable mutualistic relationships," said Maren Friesen, a Michigan State University plant biologist  and the study's other co-lead author.

After briefly considering hundreds of ecological studies stretching back to the year 2010, Jones, Friesen, and their colleagues found that more than 100 studies a year are in some part focused on the concept of cheating the rules of natural partnerships. Finding studies that reportedly found strong evidence of what was assumed was mutalistic cheating, the pair then took a closer look. (Scroll to read on...)

What they found was exactly what they've been arguing, that many 'cheaters' in mutualism never go as far as to harm their partners.

"It is possible that cheating is widespread," Friesen added. "But it is clear that previous studies have not proved that widespread cheating is taking place."

The take away is that the animal kingdom may not be as dog-eat-dog as some may think. Cooperation, it seems, still has its place, even if the nature of that partnership can be a bit strained.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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