Novel pitcher plant–spider mutualism is dependent upon environmental resource abundance
Positive species interactions are ubiquitous and crucial components of communities, but they are still not well incorporated into established ecological theories. The definitions of facilitation and mutualism overlap, and both are often context dependent. Many interactions that are facilitative under stressful conditions become competitive under more benign ones. This is known as the stress-gradient hypothesis, which is a specific case of context dependency. Stress can be further divided into resource and non-resource categories, but a better mechanistic understanding is necessary to improve the theory’s predictions. We examined if two pitcher-dwelling crab spiders (Thomisidae), Thomisus nepenthiphilus and Misumenops nepenthicola, can facilitate nitrogen sequestration in their pitcher plant host, Nepenthes gracilis, by ambushing pitcher-visiting flies and dropping their carcasses into pitchers after consumption. This relationship is, by definition, both mutualistic and facilitative. Laboratory experiments found that both crab spiders increased prey-capture rates of N. gracilis. Nutrient analyses showed that both crab spiders also decreased per unit nitrogen yield of prey. Using experiment duration as a proxy of prey-resource availability, we constructed a mechanistic conceptual model of nutritional benefit. The nutritional benefit received by N. gracilis from T. nepenthiphilus decreases with increasing levels of the limiting resource in the environment (i.e., decreasing levels of resource stress). Our findings suggest that any nutritional mutualism that increases the quantity of resource capture (e.g. number of prey individuals) but decreases the quality of the captured resource (e.g. nitrogen content of individual prey) will necessarily conform to the resource-based predictions of the stress gradient hypothesis.
Publisher URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00442-018-4246-8