Concepts in Ecology
Symbiotic Relationships


Key Concepts

Organisms interact as individuals

Interactions shape ecosystem dynamics

Symbiosis is a relationship between two species living in direct contact with one another.

EQ How does symbiosis affect an ecosystem?

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Symbiotic Relationships

Symbiosis is a close association between two species in which at least one species benefits. For the other species, the outcome of the association may be positive, negative, or neutral. There are three basic types of symbiotic relationships: mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.


Mutualism is a symbiotic relationship in which both species benefit. Lichen is a good example. A lichen is not a single organism but a fungus and an alga. The fungus absorbs water from air and minerals from rock or soil. The alga uses the water and minerals to make food for itself and the fungus. Another example involves goby fish and shrimp (see Figure 6). The nearly blind shrimp and the fish spend most of their time together. The shrimp maintains a burrow in the sand in which both the goby and the shrimp live. When a predator comes near, the fish touches the shrimp with its tail as a warning. Then, both fish and shrimp retreat to the burrow until the predator is gone. Each gains from this mutualistic relationship: the shrimp gets a warning of approaching danger, and the fish gets a safe home and a place to lay its eggs.

Shrimp and the Green Goby


The multicolored shrimp in the front and the green goby fish behind it have a mutualistic relationship. The shrimp shares its burrow with the fish, and the fish warns the shrimp when predators are near. Both species benefit from the relationship.



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Commensalism is a symbiotic relationship in which one species benefits while the other species is not affected. In commensalism, one animal typically uses another for a purpose other than food. For example, mites attach themselves to larger flying insects to get a "free ride," and hermit crabs use the shells of dead snails for shelter.

Co-evolution explains some commensal relationships. An example is the human species and some of the species of bacteria that live inside humans. Through natural selection, many species of bacteria have evolved the ability to live inside the human body without harming it.

Shark and remora






Parasitism is a symbiotic relationship in which one species (the parasite) benefits while the other species (the host) is harmed. Some parasites live on the surface of their host. Others live inside their host, entering through a break in the skin or in food or water. For example, roundworms are parasites of the human intestine. The worms produce huge numbers of eggs, which are passed in the host's feces to the environment. Other humans may be infected by swallowing the eggs in contaminated food or water. This usually happens only in places with poor sanitation.

Some parasites eventually kill their host. However, most parasites do not. Parasitism in which the host is not killed is a successful way of life and very common in nature. About half of all animal species are parasitic in at least one stage of their lifecycle. Many plants and fungi are parasitic during some stages, as well. Not surprisingly, most animals are hosts to one or more parasites.












Lesson Checklist

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How does symbiosis affect an ecosystem?

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