Loss of traits can dramatically alter the fate of species. Evidence is rapidly accumulating that the prevalence of trait loss is grossly underestimated. New findings demonstrate that traits can be lost without affecting the external phenotype, provided the lost function is compensated for by species interactions. This is important because trait loss can tighten the ecological relationship between partners, affecting the maintenance of species interactions. Here, we develop a new perspective on so-called `compensated trait loss' and how this type of trait loss may affect the evolutionary dynamics between interacting organisms. We argue that: (1) the frequency of compensated trait loss is currently underestimated because it can go unnoticed as long as ecological interactions are maintained; (2) by analysing known cases of trait loss, specific factors promoting compensated trait loss can be identified and (3) genomic sequencing is a key way forwards in detecting compensated trait loss. We present a comprehensive literature survey showing that compensated trait loss is taxonomically widespread, can involve essential traits, and often occurs as replicated evolutionary events. Despite its hidden nature, compensated trait loss is important in directing evolutionary dynamics of ecological relationships and has the potential to change facultative ecological interactions into obligatory ones.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/CNRS.