How the squashes hitched a ride with humans

Squashes are funny, as fruits go. Even after years of selection for human consumption they have thick, hard rinds, they’re not particularly sweet — in fact, they contain bitter compounds called cucurbitacins — and their seeds don’t separate from their flesh very easily. That all suggests that the wild ancestors of butternuts and pumpkins were dispersed by large mammals, but squashes are native to the Americas, and there haven’t been many large mammals of the sort that would eat them since humans showed up there, back at the end of the last ice age. Of course, those humans since domesticated squashes, which would obviate the need for seed dispersal — and a new genetic study of wild and domesticated squash species provides support for exactly that hypothesis.

Ed Yong has a nice write-up over at Phenomena:

[Squashes’] old dispersers were gone and the most likely substitutes were small rodents with diverse diets, who could have chiselled through the fruits and carried the seeds to pastures new. But Kistler found that these same animals are the most likely to be put off by the squashes’ bitter tastes. Compared to larger animals like elephants or rhinos, he found that smaller ones like mice and shrews have far more TAS2R genes, which allow them to taste bitter compounds.

Humans can’t stomach cucurbitacins either. People who’ve been unfortunate enough to swallow high levels of these chemicals have come down with a severe diarrhoeal illness called Toxic Squash Syndrome. But perhaps some ancient hunter-gatherers became skilled at finding individual squashes that produced low or tolerable levels. After eating such plants, they would have pooped the seeds out, inadvertently sowing the land with more palatable strains.

I am not personally a great fan of pumpkin pie, particularly since I tried sweet potato last Thanksgiving — but maybe this finding will make for some nice chatter over coffee after dinner. Unless you happen to have an uncle who’s into Pleistocene rewilding, anyway.

Reference

Kistler L., L.A. Newsom, T.M. Ryan, A.C. Clarke, B.D. Smith, & G.H. Perry. 2015. Gourds and squashes (Cucurbita spp.) adapted to megafaunal extinction and ecological anachronism through domestication
Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci.; published ahead of print November 16, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516109112.

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