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PLOS ONE  2012 

Interference Competition and High Temperatures Reduce the Virulence of Fig Wasps and Stabilize a Fig-Wasp Mutualism

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007802

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Fig trees are pollinated by fig wasps, which also oviposit in female flowers. The wasp larvae gall and eat developing seeds. Although fig trees benefit from allowing wasps to oviposit, because the wasp offspring disperse pollen, figs must prevent wasps from ovipositing in all flowers, or seed production would cease, and the mutualism would go extinct. In Ficus racemosa, we find that syconia (‘figs’) that have few foundresses (ovipositing wasps) are underexploited in the summer (few seeds, few galls, many empty ovules) and are overexploited in the winter (few seeds, many galls, few empty ovules). Conversely, syconia with many foundresses produce intermediate numbers of galls and seeds, regardless of season. We use experiments to explain these patterns, and thus, to explain how this mutualism is maintained. In the hot summer, wasps suffer short lifespans and therefore fail to oviposit in many flowers. In contrast, cooler temperatures in the winter permit longer wasp lifespans, which in turn allows most flowers to be exploited by the wasps. However, even in winter, only in syconia that happen to have few foundresses are most flowers turned into galls. In syconia with higher numbers of foundresses, interference competition reduces foundress lifespans, which reduces the proportion of flowers that are galled. We further show that syconia encourage the entry of multiple foundresses by delaying ostiole closure. Taken together, these factors allow fig trees to reduce galling in the wasp-benign winter and boost galling (and pollination) in the wasp-stressing summer. Interference competition has been shown to reduce virulence in pathogenic bacteria. Our results show that interference also maintains cooperation in a classic, cooperative symbiosis, thus linking theories of virulence and mutualism. More generally, our results reveal how frequency-dependent population regulation can occur in the fig-wasp mutualism, and how a host species can ‘set the rules of the game’ to ensure mutualistic behavior in its symbionts.


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