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Ear to the Ground

Avocados Should Have Gone Extinct Millions of Years Ago

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Posted on Dec 9, 2013
barron (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“The avocados we eat today aren’t that different from those that grew in Mexico and Central America hundreds of thousands of years ago,” says PBS’ Joe Hanson on the show “It’s Okay To Be Smart.”

Many don’t know that if it weren’t for homo sapiens’ avocado fetish, their favorite fruit would have been wiped off the face of the planet by now. It’s common knowledge that fruits spread their seed through animals’ digestive tracts, and avocados are no exception. In order for their seeds to be planted far enough from their “parent” tree, fruits depend on animals to eat them, and then leave their seeds elsewhere. However, avocados’ huge, lethal pits present a modern day problem for most animals since most can’t reach, chew or digest the massive brown seeds at the core of the creamy fruit. So how is it the delicious green fruits are still found in dishes all over the world?

According to writer Maria Popova on her blog Brain Pickings:

... apparently, avocados coevolved with ground sloths and were originally eaten by gomophotheres — elephant-like creatures that lived during the Miocene and Pliocene, between 12 million and 1.6 million years ago, who happily reaped the fruit with their hefty trunks, crunched them with their massive teeth, and passed the seeds comfortably through their oversized digestive tract.

The problem, of course, is that gomophotheres no longer roam the Earth — and yet avocados still exist. [Popular science writer and evolutionary biology champion Connie] Barlow writes:

Avocado’s strategy for propagation made a great deal of sense throughout the long life of its lineage — until the present moment. Even after thirteen thousand years, avocado is clueless that the great mammals are gone. For the avocado, gomophotheres and ground sloths are still real possibilities. Pulp thieves like us reap the benefits. Homo Sapiens will continue to mold the traits of the few species of genus Persea it prefers. Ultimately, however, wild breeds will devolve less grandiose fruits, or else follow their animal partners into extinction.

And avocados aren’t the only vegetation that have been around past their due date. Apparently, mangoes, papayas and yucca are also evolutionary anachronisms that have survived natural selection thanks to humans’ hankering for them.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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