Avocados are pretty nice. They go in lots of spreads and dips. Plus, if you put them on your toast you’ll annoy boomers. Because apparently avocados were the reason people couldn’t afford homes in the late 2010s. Anyway, putting a newer version of “let them eat cake” and a stale meme aside, anyone who has prepared avocados knows they have really big seeds. Feels like nature’s own version of putting a giant plastic ball in your food packaging to sell you less food. But is this really Mother Nature giving us a healthy dose of non-functional slack fill? Why are avocado seeds so big?
Remember when plants and animals were super big?
You probably have passing knowledge of the history of life on Earth. Specifically, most people are aware of how plants and animals (at varying points in history) were really big. The ones that come to mind are either dinosaurs or really, really big bugs. In case you thought gigantic bugs were fake, fossils suggest that they were definitely real and definitely very big.
These giant animals are referred to as megafauna. Normally “megafauna” doesn’t describe invertebrates like the big dragonfly, coconut crabs, or colossal squids–instead it more aptly describes things like whales, elephants, or bears. Either way, we’re here to talk about plants, and large plants are called megaflora. Who’d have thought?
The best time to be an avocado was the early Cenozoic era–which starts 66 million years ago and runs up to present day.
To understand why avocado seeds are so big, you really have to understand the point of fruits. They serve functional purposes; to protect seeds and to get eaten. When a fruit is eaten by an animal, so are the seeds inside of it. Seeds are normally passed through the digestive system after the animal that originally ate the fruit is long gone. This way the seed also gets to be farther away from its parent.
A plant out of time
Well when the subtitle was originally created we meant that the avocado lives in an era it was not meant for. But it turns out climate change is also threatening lots of crops with extinction in the near-distant future and that includes avocados. So uh… We guess avocados are also running out of time.
Avocados having really big seeds worked when megafauna like the ground sloth were common; they were big enough to eat the avocados whole and poop the entire seed out later.
13,000 years ago the vast majority of megafauna disappeared, and nobody big enough was around to eat the whole avocado. This makes the existence of the avocado today at all a bit of a mystery, in what is called an evolutionary anachronism.
But avocados aren’t alone, there are many fleshy plants like papaya and squash in the Americas (and the entirety of temperate South America) that fall under the avocado’s anachronistic banner.
So next time someone makes fun of you for using avocados in your spreads, just tell them you’re paying respects to ancient megafauna.
See if you know who makes the most avocados here.