1. Ecology
  2. Evolutionary Biology
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Temperature stress induces mites to help their carrion beetle hosts by eliminating rival blowflies

  1. Syuan-Jyun Sun  Is a corresponding author
  2. Rebecca M Kilner
  1. University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Research Article
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Cite this article as: eLife 2020;9:e55649 doi: 10.7554/eLife.55649


Ecological conditions are known to change the expression of mutualisms though the causal agents driving such changes remain poorly understood. Here we show that temperature stress modulates the harm threatened by a common enemy, and thereby induces a phoretic mite to become a protective mutualist. Our experiments focus on the interactions between the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides, an associated mite species Poecilochirus carabi and their common enemy, blowflies, when all three species reproduce on the same small vertebrate carrion. We show that mites compete with beetle larvae for food in the absence of blowflies, and reduce beetle reproductive success. However, when blowflies breed on the carrion too, mites enhance beetle reproductive success by eating blowfly eggs. High densities of mites are especially effective at promoting beetle reproductive success at higher and lower natural ranges in temperature, when blowfly larvae are more potent rivals for the limited resources on the carcass.

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in the manuscript and supporting files. The data has also been deposited on Dryad (Sun, Syuan-Jyun; Kilner, Rebecca (2020), A temperature-enhanced threat from a common enemy converts a parasite into a mutualist, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.sj3tx961z).

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Syuan-Jyun Sun

    Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-7859-9346
  2. Rebecca M Kilner

    Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


Society for the Study of Evolution (Rosemary Grant Award)

  • Syuan-Jyun Sun

Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust (Taiwan Cambridge Scholarship)

  • Syuan-Jyun Sun

European Research Council (Consolidator grant 301785 BALDWINIAN_BEETLES)

  • Rebecca M Kilner

Royal Society (Wolfson Merit Award)

  • Rebecca M Kilner

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Animal experimentation: All of the animals were handled according to approved institutional animal care of the University of Cambridge. The protocol for field experimentation was approved by the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge. During our experiments we handled our animals with care and they were not harmed at any stage. None of the animals that we used showed any signs of stress before, after or during the experiments.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Dieter Ebert, University of Basel, Switzerland

Publication history

  1. Received: January 31, 2020
  2. Accepted: August 4, 2020
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: August 5, 2020 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: August 17, 2020 (version 2)


© 2020, Sun & Kilner

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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