MUTUALISM: BARTER SYSTEM IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM


Money; the simple solution for human folk to survive in our complex and ruthless community. But back in ancient times, when we did not overcomplicate things, barter systems were the common means of exchange; a time when the teaching fees for your guru would be a whopping ten cows! Or if you’d rather have your neighbour’s goat, you’d just exchange it with two cows. Interestingly, while humans were busy exchanging animals, these very animals had already created their own system of exchange.


In the animal kingdom, we haven’t seen the use of a fixed currency like coins - yet. What we do know is that they understand that a little give and take goes a long way for each other. This concept is called Mutualism - a symbiotic relationship between organisms. While the name gives somewhat of an idea of what it entails, it goes beyond basic trading between animals and spans over multiple species of plants and animals.


Humans are social animals, just like any other species. Our exchanges are fueled by the need to satisfy our wants. Seldom can we call ourselves self-reliant; our dependence on each other causes us to interact and trade. Similarly, animals too function with this purpose. Be it the moss growing on the roots of trees, or the small fishes that hitchhike under the belly of the much bigger sharks; the natural world is a trader’s dream. So, what is the oldest, most practised trade among them? Well stripped down to an organism’s basic purpose, the answer is mating.


Mating is the key for a species to continue existing till the next disaster takes them out. Adapting and changing to ensure successful trades, creates an impact on evolution. The concept of survival of the fittest implies competition that can only be won if there is a perfect condition for a double coincidence of wants. So, it becomes a necessity for survival.


Looks go a long way in nature. An organism’s chance of survival increases significantly if it sports an eye-catching look. We can see this in a garden of multicoloured flowers, where there exists thick competition between the plants to attract their resident honey bee pollinators. For the bees, who want the sweetest nectar, the choice is relatively easy. Between a yellow sunflower and a black rose, the sunflower is the choice of feasting. But why such discrimination? Well, for bees, dark colours are a no-no while bright colours are sign boards to the kind of nectar the flower provides. The sunflower plant recognizes this bias and thus caters to the consumer’s needs. The bees in return load themselves up with pollen and spread them everywhere, ensuring that their food providers get a better chance of survival. Quite like supporting small businesses when times get hard.


We find more relatable exchanges in the case of the Adelie Penguins. These penguins are popularly known for choosing partners on the basis of the smoothest pebble offered. It might seem like a romantic gesture in our modern capitalistic world, but the reality is that this behaviour stems from scarcity. An Adelie Penguin uses stones to build its nest; due to high demand but low supply of these very stones, i.e. scarcity, a situation of competition is created among the penguins. Males in need of mates, present the best stones they can find for the females - who reward them in the form of copulation.


Copulation in animals is more or less a consensual trade if seen from a strictly scientific lens, but it can be forceful. Consent is a human concept that is alien to animals, so a coercive trade in the form of mating is seen as a necessity for survival. Other than copulation, the need for food too drives organisms into forceful trades. Hosts like the parasitic Isopod, first eat the tongue of the fish it enters and then essentially becomes the “tongue” of the same fish. Here, the marine Isopod benefits in additional nutrition while the fish gains a prosthetic tongue to help with ingestion - a great example of a toxic relationship.


For relationships to not be toxic, there need to be fair terms of contract. In the human world, contracts are safeguarded by the law but they still are often subject to exploitation and cheating. So biological contracts should have even a lesser chance of succeeding due to no safeguards, right? Yes, but also no. While humans are often influenced by greed, anger, fear and other emotions that interfere in keeping the integrity of the contract; animals don’t dwell on those things. Their brains are wired to, first and foremost, fulfil their basic needs. Simply put, the parties are too dependent to cheat and ruin the chances of their survival - so no point in risking it.


Sex, hunger and security are what drives nature’s economy. Though unmeasured, when going beyond human interference, this parallel world we co-exist with has trade systems that are perhaps much more efficient than humans’ will ever be. No surprise here because our irrationality manages to complicate things all the time. So then, who truly is the wild and unpredictable?


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