Conflict of interest in a mutualism: documenting the elusive fig wasp seed trade-off

12 April 2004

The generally accepted view that mutualisms represent reciprocal exploitations implies a greater or lesser degree of inherent tension between the partners. This view emphasizes the importance of identifying conflicts of interest between the partners, and then attempting to quantify the effects of factors that influence costs and benefits to each. The natural history of the speciose fig-fig wasp pollination mutualisms permits such measurements. However, previous attempts to document the presumed tensions, which are expected to result in a negative relationship between the production of viable seeds and pollinator wasp offspring, have met with mixed results, casting doubt on the existence of the conflict. Here, we present hierarchical analyses of 929 fruits sampled from 30 crops representing nine species of monoecious New World figs. These analyses control for the confounding influences of variation in (1) pollination intensity (numbers of foundress pollinators); (2) flower number per fruit; and (3) the proportion of those flowers that develop, on seed and wasp production, both among and within crops. We thereby show that a negative relationship between the production of viable seeds and wasps is, in fact, ubiquitous, thus documenting this underlying tension inherent in the mutualism. We suggest that complex interactions of variables that influence costs and benefits are likely to be a general property of most mutualistic systems.