Coevolution and Mutualism in Biology

As exemplified by the relationship between the yucca moth species called "Tegeticula yuccasella" and the yucca plant species called "Yucca elata," the biological phenomena of coevolution and mutualism hold special interest for those involved in the science of life.


The word "coevolution" speaks to organisms or systems that have interacted in ways that have influenced their evolution over time.

Examples include:

  • Over millions of years of coevolution, the yucca moth has come to depend exclusively on the yucca plant blossoms as a repository for eggs and on the seeds as a food source for its larvae, and the yucca plant has come to depend exclusively on the moth as an agent for pollination.

  • Comparably, the minute fig wasp has come to depend solely on the fig tree's tiny seed-bearing female flowers (located inside the fleshy syconium, a hollow receptacle that also contains numerous fruitlets and pollen-bearing male flowers) as repositories for eggs and on plant tissue for its larvae's food source, and the fig tree has come to depend solely on the wasp as its agent for pollination.

  • In a competitive and ongoing coevolutionary relationship, the common garter snake continually evolves new levels of immunity to the toxins of one of its prey, the newt, while the newt continually evolves new toxins for defense from the attacks of its predator. (Reported by S. L. Geffeney and associates in Science Magazine, 2002.)
The Yucca Moth

The yucca moth, emerging from her cocoon, flies at night to a yucca flower and collects pollen from the stamens, holding a little ball of it in her mouth-parts. She then visits another flower and lays an egg in the seed-box. After this she applies the pollen to the tip of the pistil, thus securing the fertilisation of the flower and the growth of the ovules in the pod. Yucca flowers in Britain do not produce seeds because there are no yucca moths.
Date: 1922. Author : J. Arthur Thomson


The word "mutualism" speaks to organisms or systems that have evolved mutually beneficial or complementary relationships, which may be highly exclusive or more generalized. The interdependent relationships between the yucca moth and the yucca plant and the fig wasp and the fig tree typify exclusive mutualism. Interdependent relationships between communities of organisms exemplify the more general mutualism; these include, for instance:

Insects, hummingbirds and even bats may depend on various flower species for food in the form of sugar-rich nectar or solid pollen, and the flower species depends on its various animal partners for the service of pollination.

Birds may rely, seasonally, on plants' berries or fruits as sources of nourishment, and the plants rely on the birds as distributors of (undigested) seeds.

Mushrooms, growing in a forest, may envelop the roots of various tree species, stabilizing the soil matrix and promoting the hosts' water absorption while the trees provide mushrooms with essential sugars and starches.

Author: Jay Sharp

Common Questions About Yucca Moths

How do I recognize the yucca moth?

Where can I see a yucca moth?

How do I tell the difference between a moth, a butterfly and a skipper?

Click the links to read about: the Mohave Yucca plant, the Datil Yucca plant, the Soaptree Yucca plant, or the Joshua Tree, which is also a yucca plant.


Video available on this subject.Watch a video about the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia).Video available on this subject.



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