Evolutionary Biology Coevolution
Benjamin J. Ridenhour
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0023


Coevolution is most broadly interpreted as two groups of organisms reciprocally influencing the evolution of each other. Groupings can be made at different levels of biological organization and the coevolution of those groups studied (e.g., within or between species, within or between genera, within or between guilds). The study of coevolution is often considered highly multidisciplinary, as it merges many facets of ecological and evolutionary thinking. The concept of coevolution can at least be traced back to On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859), wherein Darwin describes an “entangled bank” of species interacting and affecting one another’s evolution (this is commonly referred to as the Entangled Bank Hypothesis). Subsequent to the publication of On the Origin and other works from the mid-1800s, the study of coevolution per se was not a focus of biological research until the mid-1900s. The term “coevolution” is sometimes attributed to “Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution” (Ehrlich and Raven 1964, cited under Early Studies), in which the authors examined the coevolution of butterflies and plants; however, earlier papers that explicitly use the term coevolution exist (e.g., Mode 1958, cited under Early Studies). In the early 1980s, the article “When Is It Coevolution?” (Janzen 1980, cited under General Overviews), sought to distinguish and classify different types of coevolutionary thinking and, more narrowly, define coevolution. Despite this effort, the term coevolution is still utilized in many different ways and is to some degree dependent on the discipline of the publication (e.g., ecology versus evolutionary biology versus systematics). Due to the ubiquity of interactions between species in nature, the implications of the study of coevolution are far reaching. Studies of coevolution focus on many different types of systems, with the common ones being host-pathogen (or parasite), predator-prey, and plant-pollinator interactions. Numerous mechanisms by which coevolution alters the expected evolutionary and ecological dynamics within populations have been identified; many of these mechanisms have been discovered due to research stemming from the geographic mosaic theory in Thompson 1994 (cited under General Overviews). Empirical demonstrations of underlying processes have proven tricky, however, due to difficulties with studying multiple species across landscapes; theoretical studies are therefore common in coevolutionary biology. Despite the difficulty of field studies, it is clear that coevolution is nearly universally important in shaping the diversity of extant biotic communities.

General Overviews

The study of coevolution as a dedicated field of ecology and evolutionary biology is a fairly recent event. Coevolutionary research has accelerated tremendously since the early 1980s, however, and numerous high-quality overviews exist. It is important to recognize a fundamental division between types of coevolutionary work. Janzen 1980 argues that the term coevolution should be strictly used in the case of reciprocal evolutionary change between a pair of species. In order to establish reciprocal evolutionary change, researchers must demonstrate that species exert selective pressure on one another and that those traits under selection then evolve. The second form of coevolution is often referred to as diffuse coevolution. Fox 1988 argues that the selection acting on a species is not strictly pairwise and that multiple species within a biotic community have significant effects on the evolution of any particular trait. Janzen’s definition of coevolution is the one that is typically favored by coevolutionary biologists themselves. Perhaps the most seminal work to coevolution within the past three decades is that performed by John N. Thompson, which culminates with Thompson 2005. This book is a follow-up to Thompson 1994, which popularizes the concept of the Geographic Mosaic Theory. Great effort has been dedicated to investigating the central tenets of the geographic mosaic theory; clear paths to what is known about and how to test the geographic mosaic were described in Gomulkiewicz, et al. 2007. Interests in diffuse coevolutionary processes have recently become increasingly popular as researchers search for feedback loops between ecological and evolutionary processes. In particular, studies of community genetics, like those of Whitham, et al. 2003, examine how the evolution of interactions between species plays a role in determining community structure. Urban and Skelly 2006 extends this concept to the metacommunity level, where more complex processes between communities are considered. Another area in which diffuse coevolutionary processes play a central role is the study of indirect effects within communities. For example, Trait-Mediated Indirect Interactions, explained in Ohgushi, et al. 2012, occur when interactions with a third species modulate the traits controlling the coevolutionary interaction between two other species.

  • Fox, L. R. 1988. Diffuse coevolution within complex communities. Ecology 69:906–907.

    DOI: 10.2307/1941243

    As a counterpart to Janzen’s pairwise coevolution paper, provides arguments for study of a broader community context to interactions between species. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Gomulkiewicz, R., D. M. Drown, M. F. Dybdahl, et al. 2007. Dos and don’ts of testing the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution. Heredity 98:249–258.

    DOI: 10.1038/sj.hdy.6800949

    A “how to” guide for understanding and testing the geographic mosaic theory. The guide also summarizes current strengths, weaknesses, and research directions.

  • Janzen, D. H. 1980. When is it coevolution? Evolution 34.3: 611–612.

    DOI: 10.2307/2408229

    Seminal paper on what should be considered coevolution; provides what is now the standard definition of coevolution (in the strict sense). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ohgushi, T., O. J. Schmitz, and R. D. Holt. 2012. Trait-mediated indirect interactions : ecological and evolutionary perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511736551

    Clearly lays out what is meant by and the effects of trait-mediated indirect interactions. Section II (pp. 205–292) of the book deals strictly with coevolution.

  • Thompson, J. N. 1994. The coevolutionary process. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226797670.001.0001

    Thompson’s classic book on coevolution, in which he develops the geographic mosaic theory. This work stimulated a great deal of research on coevolutionary systems.

  • Thompson, J. N. 2005. The geographic mosaic of coevolution. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    The latest book by Thompson on his geographic mosaic theory that nicely elucidates the underpinnings of the theory and gives classic examples.

  • Urban, M. C., and D. K. Skelly. 2006. Evolving Metacommunities: Toward an Evolutionary Perspective on Metacommunities. Ecology 87:1616–1626.

    DOI: 10.1890/0012-9658(2006)87[1616:EMTAEP]2.0.CO;2

    A good introductory paper on how and why we expect metacommunities to evolve over time. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Whitham, T. G., W. P. Young, G. D. Martinsen, et al. 2003. Community and ecosystem genetics: A consequence of the extended phenotype. Ecology 84:559–573.

    DOI: 10.1890/0012-9658(2003)084[0559:CAEGAC]2.0.CO;2

    One of the earlier papers that describes how genetics can be incorporated into community interactions to predict changes in communities. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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