Like predation and competition, mutualism is now recognized as a consumer resource (C-R) interaction, including, in particular, bi-directional (e.g., coral, plant- mycorrhizae) and uni-directional (e.g., ant-plant defense, plant-pollinator) C-R mutualisms. Here, we develop general theory for the density-dependent population dynamics of mutualism based on the C-R mechanism of interspecific interaction. To test the influence of C-R interactions on the dynamics and stability of bi- and uni-directional C-R mutualisms, we developed simple models that link consumer functional response of one mutualistic species with the resources supplied by another. Phase-plane analyses show that the ecological dynamics of C-R mutualisms are stable in general. Most transient behavior leads to an equilibrium of mutualistic coexistence, at which both species densities are greater than in the absence of interactions. However, due to the basic nature of C-R interactions, certain density-dependent conditions can lead to C-R dynamics characteristic of predator-prey interactions, in which one species overexploits and causes the other to go extinct. Consistent with empirical phenomena, these results suggest that the C-R interaction can provide a broad mechanism for understanding density-dependent population dynamics of mutualism. By unifying predation, competition, and mutualism under the common ecological framework of consumer-resource theory, we may also gain a better understanding of the universal features of interspecific interactions in general.
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A consumer-resource approach to the density-dependent population dynamics of mutualism