Many people today find that life just doesn’t provide any opportunities to take a break and wind down. By the end of a long working day, there’s barely time to eat a good meal and get sufficient sleep before the whole cycle begins again. With Sundays often being spent consumed by the knowledge that Monday is right around the corner yet again, it’s a constant struggle.
It’s important, then, to be careful with the energy we spend. To prioritize and to spend it where it’s needed. We humans, perhaps, aren’t the best in the animal kingdom at this. Sloths, on the other hand, appear to have mastered the whole concept. Are they lazy? No, that’s a common misconception. They’re actually just incredibly energy efficient!
According to the WWF, sloths only cover around 41 yards in a day. Depending on your enthusiasm for exercise, this may sound like either an ideal or a nightmare existance, but it suits them just fine. With very slow metabolisms, they burn very little energy in this way. With their arboreal lifestyle, too, they have few predators to flee from, and so can afford to take it easy. Their primary diet also consists of the likes of leaves, which means that their ‘prey’ is very unlikely to flee from them in turn. No need to chase their food!
Sloths, it seems, have long been huge fans of the vegetarian diet. This is a great thing for us, as: Without the giant sloths of the ancient world, we’d have no access to avocados.
The Secret Ingredient Is Prehistoric Sloth Poop
The avocado, as any nutritionist will tell you, is a real superfood. Per Healthline, they are fantastic sources of a range of nutrients, such as fiber, healthy fats and various vitamins. In October 2019, The Journal of Nutrition published the study “A Moderate-Fat Diet with One Avocado per Day Increases Plasma Antioxidants and Decreases the Oxidation of Small, Dense LDL in Adults with Overweight and Obesity: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” from Li Wang et al.
The researchers concluded, “one avocado a day in a heart-healthy diet decreased oxLDL in adults with overweight and obesity, and the effect was associated with the reduction in sdLDL.” With a generalized, mild taste, avocados are easily fitted into a range of recipes and meals, making them as versatile as they are nutritious. The millions of people worldwide who enjoy them might be surprised to find that they have an unusual source to thank for them: the poop of giant sloths!
Avocados shouldn’t still exist at all, really. The plant dates back to the Cenozoic era, when the planet was inhabited by all manner of huge, fascinating, terrifying creatures. One of these was the giant sloth. These creatures have a proud history of truly earning the moniker of giant sloth: the biggest known species was the Megatherium, which reportedly weighed around three tons!
Despite their enormous, intimidating nature, giant sloths ate plants. Plants, as we know, have a range of cunning methods of spreading their seeds and ensuring their continued existence. Some make themselves sweet-smelling and inviting to lure pollinators, for instance, while certain trees employ those distinctive helicopter seeds so the wind carries their essence far and wide.
Prehistoric avocado trees, meanwhile, utilized those ravenous giant sloths in a different, rather more disgusting way. Its seeds were distributed in the poop of those sloths. This method not only spread the seeds around a given area, but it also leaves them with a convenient source of ready-applied fertilizer. Isn’t nature a wonderful thing?
As the Royal Botanic Gardens reports, the idea of poopy fertilizer is nothing too spectacular. This is a trick that plants continue to employ. Kew Research Fellow Dr Si-Chong Chen explained, “Fleshy fruits are usually dispersed by animal ingestion … Animals gulp down the fruits without chewing the seeds, digest the fleshy pulp and defecate the seeds.” There’s even a special scientific term for the delicate art of seed-poopery: endozoochory!
It’s thanks to the endozoochory of those vast giant sloths, then (not to mention the vast droppings such creatures surely left in their wakes), that the avocados we enjoy today continue to be available.
An Impossible Feat Of Seed-Consuming Prowess
With avocados in particular, this was much more of a feat than it may seem. The sheer size of the giant sloths of prehistory enabled them to do something very special: devour avocados without chewing them into small pieces first. By doing this, the greedy creatures ensured that the seeds remained whole, and so could survive to grow again. After a less-than-pleasant journey through the sloth’s digestive system, of course.
Endozoochory seems like a simple enough concept. In essence, it is. There are other fascinatingly unique examples, though. In the 2011 study ” Endozoochory by beetles: a novel seed dispersal mechanism” (via the National Library of Medicine), Clara de Vega et al explains that teeny insects are hardly the most common candidates for the process, “Due in part to biophysical sized-related constraints.” Cytinus hypocistis, however, is a curious plant found in the Mediterranean that is commonly eaten by beetles. These little creatures, per the study, “may facilitate the dispersal of viable seeds after passage through the gut away from the parent plant to potentially favourable underground sites offering a high probability of germination and establishment success.” Insects weren’t previously considered to be viable transportation methods for this, but here they go all the same.
Next time you eat an avocado, thank a giant ground sloth—like Lestodon! It ate avocados whole, traveled, & then pooped, depositing the pits in new places. Most mammals couldn’t handle large seeds, so it was up to megafauna like Lestodon to disperse avocados. #NationalAvocadoDay🥑 pic.twitter.com/sAGN6kqNLM
— American Museum of Natural History (@AMNH) July 31, 2019
The much (much, much, much) larger giant sloths, then, saved avocados for future human enjoyment, simply by spreading them around. This way, the plants prospered. Alas, four-ton sloths don’t exist today, and when they disappeared in their own time, delectable treats like avocados went uneaten. The seed, after all, is enormous, and so only great beasts like these provided the means for it to grow. Fortunately, humanity exploded on the scene at a very convenient time, from the avocado’s point of view. The growing of crops, even in a rudimentary, early way, is a similar method of spreading them so they grow in an optimal way, and with no pooping necessary!
As a result of all of this, then, the avocado didn’t just survive, but it did so with its great, seemingly impractical stone intact. Thanks to thousands of years of human innovation, though, we now have something new: the seedless avocado! In 2017, British supermarket chain Marks & Spencer launched the so-called cocktail avocado. The retailer reportedly explained that the treat is, ” formed by an unpollinated avocado blossom … the fruit develops without a seed, which in turn stops the growth, creating a small, seedless fruit.”
What would those prehistoric sloths have thought of this giant development?
By Chris Littlechild, contributor for Ripleys.com
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