A slime mold at Avalanche Lake. Image: GlacierNPS (Public Domain)

When losing is a winning strategy

Switching between two lifestyles that would individually result in extinction can help a species to survive.

Many organisms, from slime molds to jellyfish, alternate between life as free-moving “nomadic” individuals and communal life in a more stationary colony. So what evolutionary reasons lie behind such stark behavioral diversity in a single species? What benefits are obtained by switching from one behavior to another?

Zong Xuan Tan and Kang Hao Cheong have now developed a mathematical model that suggests an intriguing possibility: under conditions that would cause the extinction of both nomadic individuals and colonies, switching between these life strategies can enable populations to survive and grow — a counter-intuitive phenomenon called Parrondo’s paradox.

Parrondo’s paradox says that it is possible to follow two losing strategies in a specific order such that success is ultimately achieved. For example, slot machines are designed to ensure that players lose in the long run. What the paradox says is that two slot machines can be configured in such a way that playing either slot machine will lead to financial disaster, but switching between them will leave the player richer in the long run.

Most studies of similar phenomena suggest that switching between two ‘losing’ lifestyle strategies can only improve the chances of survival if the environment keeps changing in unpredictable ways. However, Tan and Cheong’s model shows that this unpredictability is an unnecessary condition — paradoxes also occur when organisms form colonies that predictably destroy their habitat.

The basic mechanism for survival is elegant. The organism periodically exploits its habitat as part of a colony, then switches to a nomadic lifestyle to allow the environment to regenerate. Through mathematical analysis and simulations, Tan and Cheong confirm that this strategy is viable as long as two conditions hold: that colonies grow sufficiently quickly when environmental resources are abundant; and that colonists switch to a nomadic lifestyle before allowing the resource levels to dip dangerously low.

The results produced by Tan and Cheong’s model help to explain how behavior-switching organisms can survive and thrive, even in harsh conditions. Further work needs to be done to adapt this general model to specific organisms and to investigate the possible evolutionary origins of behavior-switching lifestyles.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Nomadic-colonial life strategies enable paradoxical survival and growth despite habitat destruction” (January 13, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.