Explaining mutualism variation: A new evolutionary paradox?

Katy D. Heath, John R. Stinchcombe

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


The paradox of mutualism is typically framed as the persistence of interspecific cooperation, despite the potential advantages of cheating. Thus, mutualism research has tended to focus on stabilizing mechanisms that prevent the invasion of low-quality partners. These mechanisms alone cannot explain the persistence of variation for partner quality observed in nature, leaving a large gap in our understanding of how mutualisms evolve. Studying partner quality variation is necessary for applying genetically explicit models to predict evolution in natural populations, a necessary step for understanding the origins of mutualisms as well as their ongoing dynamics. An evolutionary genetic approach, which is focused on naturally occurring mutualist variation, can potentially synthesize the currently disconnected fields of mutualism evolution and coevolutionary genetics. We outline explanations for the maintenance of genetic variation for mutualism and suggest approaches necessary to address them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-317
Number of pages9
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2014


  • Coevolution
  • Cooperation
  • Partner choice
  • Partner fidelity feedback
  • Public goods
  • Quantitative genetics
  • Screening

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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