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Facultative mutualisms: A double-edged sword for foundation species in the face of global change
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  • Tjisse van der Heide,
  • Christine Angelini,
  • Jimmy De Fouw,
  • Johan Eklöf
Tjisse van der Heide
Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

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Christine Angelini
University of Florida
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Jimmy De Fouw
Radboud Universiteit
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Johan Eklöf
Stockholm University
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Ecosystems worldwide depend on habitat-forming foundation species that engage in facultative mutualisms. Global change, however, is causing rapid declines of foundation species-structured ecosystems, often typified by sudden collapse. Although disruption of obligate mutualisms involving foundation species is known to precipitate collapse (e.g. coral bleaching), how facultative mutualisms (i.e. context-dependent, non-binding reciprocal interactions) affect ecosystem resilience is uncertain. Here, we synthesize recent advancements, and combine this with model analyses supported by real-world examples, to propose that facultative mutualisms may pose a double-edged sword for foundation species. We suggest that by amplifying self-facilitative feedbacks by foundation species, facultative mutualisms can increase foundation species resistance to global change stressors. Simultaneously, however, mutualism-dependency can generate or exacerbate bistability, implying a potential for sudden collapse when the mutualism’s buffering capacity is exceeded, while recovery requires conditions to improve beyond the initial collapse point (hysteresis). Thus, our work emphasizes the importance of acknowledging facultative mutualisms for conservation and restoration of foundation species-structured ecosystems, but highlights the potential risk of relying on mutualisms in the face of global change. We argue that significant caveats remain regarding the determination of these feedbacks, and suggest empirical manipulation across stress gradients as a way forward to identify related nonlinear responses.