July 2022 Produce Parable

Avocados: An Edible Anachronism

Adam Calder, Wheatsfield Produce Manager

Avocados are one of the most popular fruits sold at Wheatsfield, and rightly so. They are delicious, versatile, and full of healthy vitamins, minerals, oils and fiber. If you start to look past their culinary qualities, the avocado reveals itself to be a plant out of place in time.

Many plants and animals evolved together over the eons. These arrangements are usually beneficial. The plant gets pollinated or has its seed spread by a particular creature, and that animal gets food in return. Humans have been eating avocados for over ten thousand years, and cultivating them for about the past five thousand. But the avocado evolved in Central America long before humans came along to eat and grow it, so it raises the question: who or what shaped the evolution of the avocado before humans?

The answer to that question lies thousands of years in the past, with a now-extinct group of mega-fauna such as giant ground sloths and an elephant-like animal called a gomphothere. These animals were much larger than their present day counterparts, and they would consume avocados whole. After a couple of bites, enough to open the skin of the avocado but not enough to crack open the large and slightly toxic pit, these animals would swallow their tasty meal. The flesh and skin of the avocado would get digested, and the pit would be deposited in the animal’s droppings.

The avocado pit, freed from its skin and now nestled in a bed of fresh fertilizer, would sprout a tree and the cycle would begin anew. No other animals in Central America were big enough to eat an avocado whole and pass the pit without severe gastrointestinal pain, or without dying from the obstruction.

When nature selected giant sloths and gomphotheres for extinction, the avocado should have followed. When the characteristics and qualities of a living species were created through favorable selection in the past because of coevolution with a now extinct species, scientists call this an evolutionary anachronism.

There are many evolutionary anachronisms still around to this day, such as papaya, persimmon, mango, hawthorn, pawpaw, cherimoya, and ginkgo trees to name a few. All of these plants have a quality or trait that calls out to creatures that are no longer around to hear the call. Humans, ever adaptive and hungry, heard those cries and picked up where these extinct animals left off.

So the next time you are sinking your teeth into a creamy smooth bite of avocado, think about the giant sloth the size of a semi-truck making a snack out of a tree’s worth of avocados in a few gulps. Imagine that animal lumbering away on some ancient journey, eventually depositing those avocado seeds in a place far from the tree they grew on. Wonder how many cycles of animal and plant it took to reach out through time to the present day. Marvel in the depths of this line, and enjoy the fruits of this long and improbable journey.