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Gomphotheres, megafauna, and anachronistic fruits
July 31, 2008 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Osage orange, avocado, papaya, honey locust, paw paw, persimmon, and many more: fruits that have outlasted the gomphotheres and other megafauna. These "anachronistic fruits" can be a key to understanding their intended consumers. More. More. More. And even more.
posted by fiercecupcake (33 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
More like megaAWESOMEfauna.

I saw something about this, but only related to avocados, on TV recently. Or maybe I read the wiki page? Semi-relatedly: Brazil nuts, I think, are only openable by some animal they are "intended" for. Of course, many other examples exist for non-extinct species.

The authors conclude that many large-seeded plant species, that once relied on bygone American elephants and compadres, now rely on present-day small and medium-sized mammals such as primates, tapirs, along with pigs and cows, for seed dispersal and regeneration.

And humans, in some cases. Surely not all avocados are picked from wild plants.

That Ghosts of Evolution book is going on my reading list. Great post!
posted by DU at 8:21 AM on July 31, 2008


Great post. I often wonder about what animal is "supposed" to be eating a particular fruit as I gorge upon it... The durian smells delicious to orangutans (it smells like rotting flesh to humans, though the fruit is delicious). Plus, they're hard to open unless you've got an opposable thumb. But what the hell is the rambutan doing? Made to be fought over by bats or hummingbirds?
posted by zpousman at 8:36 AM on July 31, 2008


I've often wondered what ate catalpa seeds and pods. I've never seen a squirrel touch them.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:51 AM on July 31, 2008


Lies. Clearly the avocado evolved to fill the guacamole niche, while it's large seed evolved to fill the "suspend in a glass of water and watch the tree grow" niche.
posted by yhbc at 8:57 AM on July 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


on intended consumers link, since when do paleobotanists get magazine style glamour shots?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:57 AM on July 31, 2008


I was just going to suggest that avocados evolved with guacamole in mind...it seems someone else shares this belief!
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:00 AM on July 31, 2008


Wonderful (but kinda melancholy) post.

I wish we still had gomphotheres.

And that modern predators weren't on the decline.

And that everyone were as educated about our ecology as the folks at Shifting Baselines.
posted by batmonkey at 9:04 AM on July 31, 2008


"suspend in a glass of water and watch the tree grow" niche.

I think the ecology of this niche must have been disrupted. It was healthy back in the 80s, when my mom did it all the time. But just a year ago I tried several times and failed utterly.
posted by DU at 9:05 AM on July 31, 2008


I'm pretty certain the intended consumer of avocados is me.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:13 AM on July 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


Avocados and Osage Oranges only make sense in the light of megafauna. That is because American gomphotheres (related to elephants) and ground sloths ate and dispersed those large-seeded fruits. While those megafauna went extinct around 10,000 years ago, many large-seeded plants in the Americas are still around today. If those plants once relied on those large creatures to disperse their seeds, why have they not gone they way of the dispersers?

1. How do we know that these plants "only make sense" as a food supply for large animals? Have they found avacado pits in fossilised elephant turds - or is this another "it seems to make sense even though we have not a shred of proof" statement of evolutionary fact?

2. If these plants continued to thrive after the extinction of these large animals, obviously, there were other equally important vectors that must have existed and which did not become extinct.

3. Guacamole is delicious.
posted by three blind mice at 9:32 AM on July 31, 2008


I've been wondering about avocados (quick-- what's green and has 6 X 10E23 seeds? [eth ordagova, of course]) but megafauna never crossed my mind.

Terrific post, thank you.
posted by jamjam at 9:39 AM on July 31, 2008


Funny story: just the other day, I'm standing in my local grocery superstore's produce section, trying to find pitted kalamata olives to make a nice Greek salad, and this extinct Madagascar sloth-lemur the size of a gorilla sidles up next to me and asks if I know where the baobab fruit is.

"Sure," I said. "See where that giant elephant bird is, over there? They're right there." The lemur smelled like Prell.

Anyway, they ended up getting in a big fight and the cops were called. It was like a Ray Harryhausen wet dream.
posted by steef at 9:41 AM on July 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


...is this another "it seems to make sense even though we have not a shred of proof" statement of evolutionary fact?

If only the FPP linked to some peer-reviewed articles.
posted by DU at 9:57 AM on July 31, 2008


...is this another "it seems to make sense even though we have not a shred of proof" statement of evolutionary fact?

Until there's been peer review and some more investigation, the theory proposed should definitely not be taken as fact. But conjecture plays an important role in science. It guides researchers to decide what ideas they want to study. Maybe nobody was looking for avocado seeds in ancient megafauna deposits before, but they'll be looking now (assuming ten thousand year old poo can be found... I'm not sure how biologists would look for that kind of thing).

Anyway, just because something isn't proven doesn't mean it isn't interesting. Maybe this isn't a new idea for biologists, but I'd never thought of looking at fruit in that way.
posted by Loudmax at 11:13 AM on July 31, 2008


Rambutans may look imposing, but the spiky parts aren't hard and prickly, more fuzzy-like. Yummy.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:46 AM on July 31, 2008


zpousman - rambutan looks like lychee, is the taste similar?

It's good the gomphotheres are gone, they'd just be endangered or caged in too small enclosures at the zoo.

I'm glad we have avocados though and I'm a huge fan of persimmons.
posted by shoesietart at 11:48 AM on July 31, 2008


Rambutan is, indeed, similar to lychee in flavor and consistency. Longan is similar to both. Asian markets carry them in season.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:54 AM on July 31, 2008


If only the FPP linked to some peer-reviewed articles.

If only. Like-minded people applying the same dubious standards to each other doesn't quite satisfy my skepticism. If you can't show me the body, then be honest enough to admit there is a possibility that no body exists.

Avocados and Osage Oranges only make sense in the light of megafauna.

"ONLY MAKES SENSE" indicates that they have stopped considering that there are other (perhaps less likely and even stranger) possibilities. It should not harm a scientist to say it "seems to make sense" and leave open the possibility that someone else might prove them wrong.

Anyway, just because something isn't proven doesn't mean it isn't interesting.
posted by three blind mice at 12:03 PM on July 31, 2008


Loudmax, may I introduce you to the coprolite.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:09 PM on July 31, 2008


zpousman, I will have to respectfully disagree with you on the taste of Durian. It also tastes like rotting flesh. It was the single worst thing I ate during my trip to Singapore. I couldn't even eat a second bite because I would have thrown up. Rambutan however, were delicious.
posted by bove at 12:32 PM on July 31, 2008


Oooh, so that's how you say it. Actually, I didn't think the time frame involved was enough for organic material to fossilize, but that linked article says they use coprolite to investigate the diet of ancient humans. So I guess there plenty of time for gomphothere poo. All they need to do is turn up an avocado seed in one of those.
posted by Loudmax at 12:33 PM on July 31, 2008


Rambutan is, indeed, similar to lychee in flavor and consistency. Longan is similar to both. Asian markets carry them in season.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:54 PM on July 31 [+] [!]



And, FWIW, both are related to, and taste similar to, dogwood fruit. Available from dogwood trees, in late spring/early summer (IIRC), assuming you can beat the squirrels to them.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:17 PM on July 31, 2008


I wish we still had gomophotheres

I can't help thinking of Unintelligent Design Network, Inc., that points out that elephant-style animals are a crap design because they've evolved and died out some 23 times.
posted by raygirvan at 1:46 PM on July 31, 2008


I was interested to see that the sap from the Osage Orange is being investigated as an insect repellent - when I was a kid we were told that if you put one in the corner of a room it would keep spiders away.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:49 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


raygirvan:
"elephant-style animals are a crap design because they've evolved and died out some 23 times"

An interesting way of looking at it, definitely.

I like thinking of cells trying and trying and trying for the most content version of an organism they can manage. That they keep attempting that organism format is fascinating to me.
posted by batmonkey at 4:00 PM on July 31, 2008


steef: The lemur smelled like Prell.

Did this get crossposted from the Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction thread?
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:05 PM on July 31, 2008


The only rambutan I have eaten was about as delicious as blue styrofoam. Same squeaky-in-the-teeth consistency, same flavourless taste.

I suppose they may not have been good rambutan.

Regarding durian fruit, how is something that smells like rotting flesh supposed to taste like something other than rotting flesh? Almost all our taste perception is sensed through our olfactory glands. Something about that just doesn't jive.

I personally suspect durian is a cultural joke on foreigners.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:51 PM on July 31, 2008




Rambutan is like lychee but about 10x better.

Durian is definitely weird. But it's kind of the most amazing onion (or some other spice) but also very sweet and coconutty custard. It's custard inside. A real custard (not like bread versus breadfruit)... it was amazing, but I could see why people might not like it. My wife wouldn't go near the shit, btw.
posted by zpousman at 7:50 PM on July 31, 2008


With regards to durian, to me they taste fantastic and smell fantastic too. Walking past a store selling durians when they're in season just makes me want to stop and have a long deep sniff to take in that gorgeous complex aroma.

Of course most foreigners think its absolutely disgusting, but consider the fact that many of the cheeses and hams loved in the West smell quite offensive to my Singaporean nose. I think there isn't really anything such as an absolutely fragrant or offensive smell; just a strong smell. Its probably some psychological thing to do with the associations we have between particular scents and good experiences.
posted by destrius at 9:42 PM on July 31, 2008


It could be akin to the asparagus pee phenomena, a genetic trait that reults in olfactory nerves that bind a certain organic molecule as scent. Some people can't smell asparagus pee, some can; some can't smell tasty durian, some can.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:02 PM on July 31, 2008


Rambutan is like lychee but about 10x better.

And mangosteen is like Rambutan but about 10x better.

Ah, mangosteen. Every time I see them for sale (not often in this dreary part of the world) I have to buy about four, even though they cost $2 each for an edible portion only a little larger than a lychee.

Interesting fact: 'rambutan' is Malay for (approximately) 'hairy thing', because rambutans are hairy. I think that's cute. 'Durian' does not, as you might expect, mean 'thing that nothing sane would eat' but rather 'thorny thing', because durians are covered in thorns. And durian ice cream is actually nice.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:39 AM on August 1, 2008


mangosteens were the best weird fruit i tried while traveling. Almost everything else was sortof disappointing, but mangosteens are awesome!
posted by Iax at 11:33 AM on August 2, 2008


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