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.

The cost of attracting pollinators is … attracting everyone else

Flowers of Dalechampia scan dens, with key measurements indicated. Figure 1 of Perez-Barrales et al. (2013).

Flowers of Dalechampia scandens, with key measurements indicated. Figure 1 of Perez-Barrales et al. (2013).

Flowers that rely on animal pollinators to remix their genetic material have evolved a tremendous diversity of strategies for attracting those pollinators—from beguiling scents to elaborate visual displays to pretending to be a lady pollinator.

But there’s a downside to making a big, showy display to attract pollinators—you might also attract visitors who have less helpful intentions than gathering up some pollen and moving on to the next flower. Showy flowers might attract animals that steal the rewards offered to pollinators—or they might attract animals that eat the flowers themselves, or the developing seeds created by pollination. So the evolution of attractive floral displays might very well be a compromise between attracting the right visitors, and attracting the wrong ones.

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When the going gets tough, mutualism gets going

C. alliodora III

Cordia alliodora. Photo by Karen Blix.

Evolution by natural selection is not usually considered very peaceful—the “survival of the fittest” is usually assumed to come at the expense of competitors for food or shelter or other resources. But the “fittest” can also be those who recruit assistance from other individuals, or other species—and who provide assistance in return.

This was the perspective of Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince and political anarchist who studied the wildlife of Siberia while working as an agent of the Czar’s government. In the harsh conditions of the Siberian winter, Kropotkin reported finding not a bitter struggle over scarce resources, but what he called “Mutual Aid” among species, as well as in the human settlements that managed to eke out a living.

Something like what Kropotkin described is documented in a new paper by Elizabeth Pringle and colleagues. Examining a protection mutualism between ants and the tropical Central American tree Cordia alliodora, Pringle et al. found that drier, more stressful environments supported more investment in the mutualism.

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Why grow thorns if they don’t work?

This post is a guest contribution by Colin Beale, a research fellow at the University of York who studies ecology in Tanzania. Colin writes about the living community of the savannah, from butterflies to wildebeests, with co-blogger Ethan Kinsey at Safari Ecology. If you have an idea for a post, and you’d like to contribute to Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, e-mail Jeremy to inquire.

Giraffes lick leaves from between the thorns.

Spinescent. Now there’s a word! It simply means having spines and one of the first things many visitors to the African savannah notice is that everything is covered in thorns. Or, in other words, Africa is spinescent. It’s not a wise idea to brush past a bush when you’re walking, and you certainly want to keep arms and legs inside a car through narrow tracks. These are thorns that puncture heavy-duty car tyres, let alone delicate skin. But why is the savanna so much thornier than many of the places visitors come from? Or even than other biomes within Africa, such as the forests?

At one level the answer is obvious—there are an awful lot of animals that like to eat bushes and trees in the savanna. Any tree that wants to avoid this would probably be well advised to grow thorns or have some other type of defence mechanism to protect itself. But then again, perhaps the answer isn’t so obvious: all those animals that like to eat bushes seem to be eating the bushes perfectly happily despite the thorns. So why bother having thorns in the first place? There’s certainly a serious cost to having thorns: plants that don’t need to grow them have been shown in experiments to produce more fruits. So if animals eat the plants with thorns anyway, why pay this cost?

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