Symbiotic relationships are long-term, close interactions between individuals of different species that affect the distribution and abundance of those species. When a relationship is beneficial to both species, this is called mutualism. When the relationship is beneficial to one species but neither beneficial nor harmful to the other species, this is called commensalism. When one organism is harmed to benefit another, the relationship is known as parasitism. These types of relationships often result in co-evolution and contribute to the complexity of community structure.
Mutualism occurs when both species benefit from a close relationship. One common example is the relationship between ants and aphids. Aphids feed on the phloem of plant stems with their piercing mouthparts and excrete a sugary fluid. Ants, which feed on this excretion, have evolved a complex relationship with the aphids similar to that between farmers and dairy cattle. Ants will carry the aphids to different food sources, protect the aphids from predation, and remove aphids infected by fungal parasites. The ants then benefit by consuming the sugary excretions produced by the aphids.
Commensal relationships benefit one species, but neither hurt nor harm the other. For example, epiphytes (such as Spanish moss) use trees and other plants for structural support to grow but do not harm or benefit the host tree. Also, barnacles attach themselves to mobile marine animals, like whales. The barnacles benefit from being carried to plankton-rich food sources where both whales and barnacles feed and are also protected from certain predators. Generally, the whale is not harmed by this interaction, so the relationship is often described as commensalism. However, barnacles can cause minor hydrodynamic drag and skin irritation and are thus sometimes considered semiparasitic. This illustrates a fine line between commensalism and parasitism.
Relationships in which one species benefits from harming another species are parasitic. Parasitism is similar to predation, but parasites often do not kill their hosts. The complex relationships between parasites and their hosts often have long co-evolutionary histories. Many parasites have long, complex life cycles that involve multiple hosts. A typical example is Plasmodium malariae. A female mosquito carries the Plasmodium sporozoites in her saliva. When the sporozoites are injected into the bloodstream of a human, they travel to the liver.
In the liver, the Plasmodium undergoes many stages of its life cycle, resulting in the production of merozoites, which move into the blood. A portion of the merozoites released from infected blood cells forms gametocytes. The male and female gametocytes of the Plasmodium can be ingested again by a mosquito during a meal. Within the mosquito’s stomach, the gametocytes generate zygotes, which develop into oocytes that rupture to release more sporozoites, beginning the cycle again.