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  1. A long-standing problem in the study of mutualism is to understand the effects of non-mutualistic community members that exploit the benefits of mutualism without offering commodities in exchange (i.e., ‘exploiters’). Mutualisms are continually challenged by exploiters and their persistence may depend on the costliness of exploitation or on adaptations that allow mutualists to avoid the negative effects of exploiters. Coevolution could lead to changes in mutualists and exploiters that allow mutualisms to persist. Although coevolution is considered essential for mutualism persistence and resistance to disturbance, we have yet to obtain direct experimental evidence of the role of coevolution in resistance to exploitation. Additionally, resistance to exploitation via coevolutionary processes might vary with the degree of dependency between mutualistic partners, as facultative mutualisms are thought to be under weaker coevolutionary selection than obligate mutualisms. Here, we conducted an experimental evolution study using a synthetic yeast mutualism to test how coevolution in facultative and obligate mutualisms affects their resistance to exploitation. We found that naïve facultative mutualisms were more likely to breakdown under exploitation than naïve obligate mutualisms. After 15 weeks of coevolution, both facultative and obligate evolved mutualists were more likely to survive exploitation than naïve mutualists when we reassembled mutualist communities. Additionally, coevolved exploiters were more likely to survive with mutualists, whereas naïve exploiters frequently went extinct. These results suggest that coevolution between mutualists and exploiters can lead to mutualism persistence, potentially explaining why exploitation is ubiquitous but rarely associated with mutualism breakdown.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 14, 2025
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  3. null (Ed.)
    Standardized protocols are an essential asset for research requiring the maintenance of live organisms. Ecological studies often involve collaborations between multiple teams that are spread across locations, and these collaborations benefit from sharing successful laboratory procedures. Our research team is studying the ecology of the fall webworm moth (Hyphantria cunea, hereafter FW) in North America for >10 years, during which time we have established reliable procedures for starting and maintaining FW colonies under laboratory conditions. FW is a North American species that has been introduced to Europe and Asia where it is a major pest. Here, we present a detailed review of the methods we use to find and collect FW caterpillars in the field, house and rear caterpillars in the laboratory, handle pupae, and initiate diapause for overwintering. We also describe how to end diapause the following summer, care for emerging adult moths and mate them, and tend to eggs. Lastly, we test the effectiveness of some of our protocols related to mating adult moths to determine whether fertile eggs are produced. FW is becoming a model study system for ecological and evolutionary studies related to diet breadth. As more researchers begin studying the ecology and management of FW, laboratory colonies will play an important role for these projects. Our protocols will provide guidance to inform the successful study of this important insect. 
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  4. Mutualisms, or reciprocally beneficial interspecific interactions, constitute the foundation of many ecological communities and agricultural systems. Mutualisms come in different forms, from pairwise interactions to extremely diverse communities, and they are continually challenged with exploitation by nonmutualistic community members (exploiters). Thus, understanding how mutualisms persist remains an essential question in ecology. Theory suggests that high species richness and functional redundancy could promote mutualism persistence in complex mutualistic communities. Using a yeast system (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), we experimentally show that communities with the greatest mutualist richness and functional redundancy are nearly two times more likely to survive exploitation than are simple communities. Persistence increased because diverse communities were better able to mitigate the negative effects of competition with exploiters. Thus, large mutualistic networks may be inherently buffered from exploitation.

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  5. Abstract

    Primary consumers are under strong selection from resource (‘bottom‐up’) and consumer (‘top‐down’) controls, but the relative importance of these selective forces is unknown. We performed a meta‐analysis to compare the strength of top‐down and bottom‐up forces on consumer fitness, considering multiple predictors that can modulate these effects: diet breadth, feeding guild, habitat/environment, type of bottom‐up effects, type of top‐down effects and how consumer fitness effects are measured. We focused our analyses on the most diverse group of primary consumers, herbivorous insects, and found that in general top‐down forces were stronger than bottom‐up forces. Notably, chewing, sucking and gall‐making herbivores were more affected by top‐down than bottom‐up forces, top‐down forces were stronger than bottom‐up in both natural and controlled (cultivated) environments, and parasitoids and predators had equally strong top‐down effects on insect herbivores. Future studies should broaden the scope of focal consumers, particularly in understudied terrestrial systems, guilds, taxonomic groups and top‐down controls (e.g. pathogens), and test for more complex indirect community interactions. Our results demonstrate the surprising strength of forces exerted by natural enemies on herbivorous insects, and thus the necessity of using a tri‐trophic approach when studying insect‐plant interactions.

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