Each species in an ecosystem is considered a population. This represents a group of actually or potentially interbreeding organisms and is an important area of study for both ecologists and geneticists. When multiple species in an ecosystem are considered together, this is called a community. For example, a forest could be composed of a single population of redwood trees, but it is more likely to be a community, including other tree species like Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir, and animals like the Northern spotted owl or Coho salmon. All living organisms are considered to be a part of the community in a given ecosystem.
What is the difference between a community and an ecosystem?
One important community interaction we study in botany (in addition to mycorrhizae) is pollination. This is the transfer of pollen from one plant to another and can be mediated by animals, water, wind, or another mechanism. Since we are talking about community interactions, we will focus on animal pollination. Many flowering plants have evolved over time to attract a specific animal pollinator. Because the plant often provides food in the form of nectar or pollen, the pollinator often relies on this relationship as well and coevolves with the plant. One interesting example of this coevolution is the pollination of figs by parasitic wasps.
The Story of the Fig and the Wasp
Figs are made of many small flowers in an inside-out inflorescence called a syconium. How, then, are these flowers pollinated to develop into fruits? Figs are pollinated by tiny chalcid wasps known as fig wasps. In the spring, female fig wasps laden with pollen and fertilized eggs enter into the fig syconium through a small opening at the top. As she enters, her wings are ripped off, making her unable to leave again. She has reached her destination.
As she walks along the tops of the flowers, which are in their female stage, she lays her eggs inside the ovaries by inserting a long tube called an ovipositor down through the style.
Pollen falls off of her body onto the flowers and travels down the styles as well to fertilize the ovaries. Each flower she deposits an egg into will develop into a wasp instead of a fruit. However, some of the styles are longer than others, and in these she will not be able to lay her eggs. These flowers will develop into the fig fruit, while the others will serve as nurseries for the fig's strange pollinators.
The male wasps hatch first. Blind and wingless, they roam around the enclosed inflorescence, impregnating their still-sleeping sisters. As carbon dioxide builds up within the chamber, they begin to suffocate and burrow out through the sides of the figs, allowing oxygen to flow back in.
After their brothers have died, the females hatch, climbing over the flowers that are now in their male stage, collecting pollen and stuffing it into pouches on their bodies. The young female wasps, laden with pollen and fertilized eggs, leave the fig through the tunnels their brothers made and fly off to find a developing fig to lay their eggs and pollinate the enclosed florets. The timeline of a fig wasp's life is intricately interwoven into the phenology of the fig tree.
View the diagram on the following page and identify the stages in the connected life cycles of these organisms. If available in lab or on your field trip, cut open a fig to view the florets developing inside the syconium.
Is this relationship a parasitism or mutualism? Explain your reasoning.