Avocados – My Favorite Ecological Anachronism

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Why do we eat avocados? I mean, I’m glad we do; they are full of healthy fats, when sliced up, they’re delicious on toast, and you can’t eat a burrito without their mashed up interior. Guacamole is life. Even though I’m allergic, I still eat a lot of guac. I should probably stop.

But have you ever sat down and truly thought about why they exist? No? No one else has existential crises while looking at food? Well, you guys are missing out.

Let’s think about it. Why do most foods exist? Because we grow them, duh. But what about before there were people to farm? Avocados, in some form, must have existed before then.

Many plants spread by creating some kind of delicious fruit with at least one seed hidden inside. In this context, tomatoes are a fruit, as well as acorns and our beloved avocado. An animal comes along and eats the treat. The seed travels through the digestive system of its welcoming host and, eventually, gets deposited far away from its mother plant. The seed then sprouts a new plant, which starts the cycle anew. Success! Its evolutionary necessity to reproduce and spread has worked!

But what can eat the avocado, seed and all? There aren’t a lot of animals in the Americas, where the avocado is native, big enough to swallow that giant seed. The answer just happens to be my favorite animal — the giant ground sloth!

Imagine a sloth; a cute little sloth hugging a tree branch and munching on some leaves. Now imagine that sloth is 20 feet long and weighs 8,000 pounds. These guys could snack on avocados like I snack on wasabi peas. Along with sloths the size of a baby T-Rex, other charismatic megafauna such as giant armadillos, mastodons, and giant beavers might all have a claw-full for lunch. Alas, around the time of the last Ice Age, most of these megafauna died out. The dating isn’t certain, but giant sloths and a host of other large creatures died out just about the same time that humans first appeared in the Americas. There was no one left to eat the avocado’s buttery insides and spread the seeds around until people showed up to farm them a few thousand years ago.

There was a gap between when the sloths died out and when people started cultivating avocados, somewhere between zero and five thousand years, depending on who you ask. That might seem like a long time, but in the ecological time frame, it’s two shakes of a lamb’s tail. We’re not really sure how avocados bridged this gap, but thank goodness they did! After that they probably wouldn’t have made it to the present if it wasn’t for humans’ interference, which is why we now call it an “ecological anachronism”. Is that the name of a band? It should be.

About The Author

Just a girl who has a lot of feelings about planetary science

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