When it comes to two-timing their associates, animals seem to be much more straight-laced than humans, according to new research from Rice University.
An exhaustive review of dozens of ecological studies has found little to no evidence that supports the common notion that mutualist animals cheat one another, although there is a bit of a catch: what qualifies as cheating seems to vary considerably between humans and animals.
"By definition, a behavior is only cheating if it provides one partner with an advantage and also imposes a disadvantage on the other partner," study co-lead author and evolutionary ecologist Emily Jones explains in a news release.
"People have tended to be narrowly focused on whether one partner was either giving less of a resource or taking more from the other partner, but neither of those qualifies as cheating unless the other partner is harmed."
Interspecies cooperation is common throughout the animal kingdom. For example, a mutualistic relationship between bumblebees and flowers sets the stage for important pollination activities to occur. Although some of the creatures in these partnerships may qualify as "low-quality" partners, it's rare for a cooperating species to disadvantage upon one of its companions.
"One of my advisers from graduate school [...] liked to describe mutualism as 'mutual exploitation,'" Jones adds. "Each species is actually exploiting the other, and each one benefits more from the mutual arrangement than they are harmed by it."
Jones' research is published online in the journal Ecology Letters.
Correction: a previous version of this story misidentified a non-mutualistic relationship.