Context-dependent outcomes in a reproductive mutualism between two freshwater fish species
1 The development of encompassing general models of ecology is precluded by underrepresentation of certain taxa and systems. Models predicting contextdependent outcomes of biotic interactions have been tested using plants and bacteria, but their applicability to higher taxa is largely unknown. 2 We examined context dependency in a reproductive mutualism between two stream fish species: mound nest-building bluehead chub Nocomis leptocephalus and mountain redbelly dace Chrosomus oreas, which often uses N. leptocephalus nests for spawning. We hypothesized that increased predator density and decreased substrate availability would increase the propensity of C. oreas to associate with N. leptocephalus and decrease reproductive success of both species. 3 In a large-scale in situ experiment, we manipulated egg predator density and presence of both symbionts (biotic context), and replicated the experiment in habitats containing high- and low-quality spawning substrate (abiotic context). 4 Contradictory to our first hypothesis, we observed that C. oreas did not spawn without its host. The interaction outcome switched from commensalistic to mutualistic with changing abiotic and biotic contexts, although the net outcome was mutualistic. 5 The results of this study yielded novel insight into how context dependency operates in vertebrate mutualisms. Although the dilution effect provided by C. oreas positively influenced reproductive success of N. leptocephalus, it was not enough to overcome both egg predation and poor spawning habitat quality. Outcomes of the interaction may be ultimately determined by associate density. Studies of context dependency in vertebrate systems require detailed knowledge of species life-history traits.