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Biology LibreTexts

45.5C: Symbiosis

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  • Commensalism, mutualism, and parasitism are three symbiotic ways organisms interact with each other with differing degrees of benefit.


    Differentiate among the types of symbiosis: commensalism, mutualism, and parasitism


    Key Points

    • Commensalism is when two organisms share the same environment, where one benefits and the other is unharmed.
    • Trees and birds have a commensalistic relationship; the birds benefit from having a place to build their nests, while the trees are unharmed and not impacted by the bird’s presence.
    • Mutualism is when two species sharing the same environment both benefit from their interactions.
    • The protozoans living within the intestines of termites create a mutualistic relationship with them; the protozoans get a safe place to live while the termites get help digesting the cellulose in their diet.
    • Parasitism occurs when two organisms interact, but while one benefits, the other experiences harm.
    • Parasites harm their hosts, as with the tapeworm attaching itself to the intestine of a cow; the tapeworm absorbs the nutrients from the cow’s diet, preventing them from being absorbed by the cow.

    Key Terms

    • mutualism: Any interaction between two species that benefits both.
    • commensalism: A sharing of the same environment by two organisms where one species benefits and the other is unaffected; e.g., barnacles on whales.
    • parasitism: Interaction between two organisms, in which one organism (the parasite) benefits and the other (the host) is harmed.

    Symbiotic relationships, or symbioses (plural), are close interactions between individuals of different species over an extended period of time which impact the abundance and distribution of the associating populations. Most scientists accept this definition, but some restrict the term to only those species that are mutualistic, where both individuals benefit from the interaction.


    A commensalistic relationship occurs when one species benefits from the close, prolonged interaction, while the other neither benefits nor is harmed. Birds nesting in trees provide an example of a commensal relationship. The tree is not harmed by the presence of the nest among its branches. The nests are light and produce little strain on the structural integrity of the branch. Most of the leaves, which the tree uses to obtain energy by photosynthesis, are above the nest, so they are unaffected. The bird, on the other hand, benefits greatly. If the bird had to nest in the open, its eggs and young would be vulnerable to predators.


    Commensalistic relationship: The southern masked-weaver bird is starting to make a nest in a tree in Zambezi Valley, Zambia. This is an example of a commensal relationship, in which one species (the bird) benefits, while the other (the tree) neither benefits nor is harmed.


    A second type of symbiotic relationship, mutualism, is where two species both benefit from their interaction. Some scientists believe that these are the only true examples of symbiosis. For example, termites have a mutualistic relationship with protozoa that live in the insect’s gut. The termite benefits from the ability of bacterial symbionts within the protozoa to digest cellulose. The termite itself cannot do this; without the protozoa, it would not be able to obtain energy from its food (cellulose from the wood it chews and eats). The protozoa and the bacterial symbionts benefit by having a protective environment and a constant supply of food from the wood-chewing actions of the termite.


    A parasite is an organism that lives in or on another living organism, deriving nutrients from it. In this relationship the parasite benefits, but the organism being fed upon, the host, is harmed. The host is usually weakened by the parasite as it siphons resources the host would normally use to maintain itself. The parasite, however, is unlikely to kill the host. This is because the parasite needs the host to complete its reproductive cycle by spreading to another host.

    The reproductive cycles of parasites are often very complex, sometimes requiring more than one host species. A tapeworm is a parasite that causes disease in humans when contaminated, undercooked meat such as pork, fish, or beef is consumed. The tapeworm can live inside the intestine of the host for several years, benefiting from the food the host is bringing into its gut by eating; it may grow to be over 50 ft long by adding segments. The parasite moves from species to species as it requires two hosts to complete its life cycle.


    Lifecycle of a parasitic tapeworm: This diagram shows the life cycle of a pork tapeworm (Taenia solium), a human worm parasite. The eggs of the tapeworm are ingested by the host. When they hatch, the worms travel through the wall of the intestine and begin to grow. Here, the parasite will absorb the nutrition from the host and continue to grow.