Simanaitis Says

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OUCH. TODAY’S ITEM was inspired by two sources: a crossword puzzle clue in The New York Times, May 2, 2021; and, coincidently, a mention on BBC World Service, May 3, 2021. 

The New York Times puzzle clue was “Avocado pit, for one,” (four letters). The BBC World Service noted that avocados are “an evolutionary anachronism,” an aspect related to the puzzle answer: “SEED.” 

Here are tidbits on the avocado, gleaned from a variety of sources.

Botany. The avocado, Persea americana, is a fruit tree. Its fruit, botanically a large berry, goes by the same name as well as alligator pear or avocado pear. Our British friends are known to use this latter name and, as slang, the avo. 

Avocado fruit and foliage. Image by B.navez from Wikipedia.

An avocado tree can grow to 20 m (66 ft). Mexico produces 32 percent of the world’s avocados; the Dominican Republic, Peru, Columbia, and Indonesia produce another 31 percent.

History. As described in Wikipedia, “The native, undomesticated variety is known as a criollo, and is small, with dark black skin, and contains a large seed.”

Native Oaxaca criollo avocados, the ancestral form of today’s domesticated varieties. Image by Nsaum75 at English Wikipedia.

Wikipedia notes, “The oldest discovery of an avocado pit comes from Coxcatlan Cave [in the Tehuacán Valley of Puebla, Mexico], dating from around 9000 to 10,000 years ago.”

Wikipedia continues, “There are some reasons to think that the fruit, with its mildly toxic pit, may have coevolved with Pleistocene megafauna to be swallowed whole and excreted in their dung, ready to sprout. No extant native animal is large enough to effectively disperse avocado seeds in this fashion.”

Megafauna. BBC World Service cites megafauna as ancient consumers (and propagation aides) of the avocado. Wikipedia notes, “In 1982, evolutionary biologist Daniel H. Janzen concluded that the avocado is an example of an ‘evolutionary anachronism,’ a fruit adapted for ecological relationship with now-extinct large mammals (such as giant ground sloths or gomphotheres).

The word “megafauna” caught my attention. Imagine an animal gulping down an avocado, pit and all. 

Gomphotheres were pre-mammoths in North America some 12–1.6 million years ago. Similar in appearance to elephants, they’re unrelated to the Elephantidae family.

Gomphotherium productum at the National Museum of Natural History. Image by Ryan Somma from Wikipedia.

 Giant ground sloths include the Megatherlidae. These get their name from the Greek: “great beast,” and, indeed, the description fits. 

M. americanum, Natural History Museum, London. Image by User: Ballistra from Wikipedia.

Living some 30 million years ago in South America, a Megatherium weighed as much as four tons and stood perhaps 20 ft. tall. It’s one of the largest land mammals known to exist. (Aquatic mammals have different evolutionary paths: A blue whale can reach 100 ft. in length and weigh 220 tons.)

Image by Muhammad Mahdi Karim from Wikipedia.

What did M. americanum eat? My guess is anything it wanted. But we can thank it for helping to propagate the large berry known today as the avocado. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 


  1. Mark Pressey
    May 7, 2021

    On Avocados, we’re blessed to have both Haas and Fuerte trees that like to co-exist. I can assure you that avocado “pits” have no problem sprouting seedlings growing from just the decomposing avocado on the ground (no Pleistocene worthy preprocessing necessary). The dropped leaves help as well. Our English mastiffs loved eating them, but even they spit out the pits first.

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