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Word of the Week: Symbiosis

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Welcome to Word of the Week! Stay tuned for a new word each Wednesday to amp up your nature vocabulary! This week we want to teach you about the balance of nature, also known as symbiosis!

What Does Symbiosis Mean? 

Symbiosis [sim-bahy-OH-seez] (noun): A relationship between two or more organisms that live closely together. These organisms could both be plants, animals, or a mix of multiple.

How Does Symbiosis Help Organisms? 

Remember watching the movie The Lion King? You might remember the scene when Mufasa explains to Simba the circle of life when he said, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.” 

Mufasa’s explanation of the circle of life can also be seen as a symbiotic relationship. It is a type of close or long-term interaction between two or more different organisms. 

There are four main types of symbiosis. These include parasitism, mutualism, competition, and commensalism. 

Parasitism refers to the relationship where one organism benefits from the interaction and the other is harmed. For example, a sea lamprey is a type of parasite that will survive by feeding and living off other organisms. It will attach itself to fish, and get nourishment from there until the fish is weakened. 

Mutualism is when both organisms benefit from the interaction. Examples of each include a leach latched onto aquatic animals, a clown fish living among anemone, or a remora eating scraps and parasites while hitching a ride on a shark.

Competition is when there is a struggle among organisms either, from the same species or different for the same resources in an ecosystem. An example of competition from different species would be the relationship between coral and sponges. There are many sponges in coral reefs, but if the sponges become too successful and outcompete, then, they will need to start taking resources from the coral that makes the reefs. This will start to ruin the reefs. Balance, in the end, can only be found if some of the sponges begin to die off. 

Commensalism is when one organism benefits and the other is left unharmed. For example, the relationship between a barnacle and a whale is commensalism. When the barnacle attaches itself to a whale, the whale is not harmed but the barnacle is able to get food from the water while the whale swims. 

Symbiotic relationships can be very helpful because they can help you see how an ecosystem is doing and its health. Let’s take the ecosystem in the ocean as an example.

If the temperature becomes too high in the ocean, coral reefs are forced to remove the algae that live within them. Without the algae, the coral reef turns white and dies. When these small changes in coral are noticed, it can give people a chance to study why this is happening and start making the changes to stop it. 

Symbiotic Relationships in High Park

In High Park, we also have many plants and animals that live in symbiosis. Let’s dive into a few together. 

Bees and Butterflies

Our resident pollinators such as bees, and butterflies have a symbiotic relationship with the plants that they visit. The insects are given nectar and pollen to feed on in exchange for spreading the plants genetic material to a new flower, thus allowing the plant to reproduce.

Spiders

Another symbiotic relationship is spiders and trees. Spiders will use trees to build a web. Though the tree is not harmed, the spider needs a home for shelter, safety, and to capture food.  

Weeds

There are many species of weeds that will create spiky burrs that will attach onto the fur of animals. When the animal travels these burrs will fall off, successfully spreading the seeds of the plants. 

Fleas and Mosquitoes

Fleas and Mosquitoes feed on the blood of other organisms. In this parasitic symbiosis relationship, the host needs to be alive but is not harmed greatly.  

Berries

Berries over time have evolved in a very unique way with that the plant has adapted to cope with animal feeding on its seeds. Birds and mammals will eat the berries, and the seeds of the plant are dispersed by animal indigestion. Meaning animals will eat the fruit but not the seed. 

Wood Ants

Wood ants have a symbiotic relationship with any organism in a forest. Some flowering species will depend on ants for their dispersal, Cow-wheat seeds, for example, have a fatty part to their feeds. The ants will take these seeds, feed them to their larvae, and the rest of the seed will be left behind to grow and flourish. 

Wood ants also have a really interesting relationship with aphids. Ants will stroke the aphids, making them release a waste product called honeydew. This liquid will give a meal for the ants, while the aphids get protection from the ants from any predators. The ants will also protect the food source of aphids from any sapsuckers. 

Symbiotic relationships are everywhere. If you look carefully in your homes, or even in your backyard you can find some amazing relationships between organisms. When studied, these relationships can help us understand animals, and plants around us better. 

On your next High Park visit, take a moment to look closely and notice all of the symbiotic relationships happening around you! 

To learn more about some of these animals then check out High Park Nature Centre’s Book Club, come to one of our classes or bring your friends and family on our nature walk.  

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