Population dynamics and the ecological stability of obligate pollination mutualisms

J. Nathaniel Holland, Donald L. DeAngelis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Mutualistic interactions almost always produce both costs and benefits for each of the interacting species. It is the difference between gross benefits and costs that determines the net benefit and the per-capita effect on each of the interacting populations. For example, the net benefit of obligate pollinators, such as yucca and senita moths, to plants is determined by the difference between the number of ovules fertilized from moth pollination and the number of ovules eaten by the pollinator's larvae. It is clear that if pollinator populations are large, then, because many eggs are laid, costs to plants are large, whereas, if pollinator populations are small, gross benefits are low due to lack of pollination. Even though the size and dynamics of the pollinator population are likely to be crucial, their importance has been neglected in the investigation of mechanisms, such as selective fruit abortion, that can limit costs and increase net benefits. Here, we suggest that both the population size and dynamics of pollinators are important in determining the net benefits to plants, and that fruit abortion can significantly affect these. We develop a model of mutualism between populations of plants and their pollinating seed-predators to explore the ecological consequences of fruit abortion on pollinator population dynamics and the net effect on plants. We demonstrate that the benefit to a plant population is unimodal as a function of pollinator abundance, relative to the abundance of flowers. Both selective abortion of fruit with eggs and random abortion of fruit, without reference to whether they have eggs or not, can limit pollinator population size. This can increase the net benefits to the plant population by limiting the number of eggs laid, if the pollination rate remains high. However, fruit abortion can possibly destabilize the pollinator population, with negative consequences for the plant population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)575-586
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2001


  • Benefits
  • Costs
  • Fruit abortion
  • Functional response
  • Mutualism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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