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Meet the Prehistoric Creature Who Saved the Avocado

Whom do we have to thank for the propagation of avocado seeds all over the prehistoric earth? The strange, epically-large relatives of the modern-day elephant: the gomphotheres.

Take a trip back through time with us to the Miocene epoch (23.3 - 5.3 million years ago). Three-toed horses, Sparassodonta, and a multitude of marine birds coexist during this era which culminated in a series of ice ages. Apes are beginning to thrive and grasslands were expanding. Many of the fruits and vegetables we recognize and still eat today were beginning to pop up, and, although the first avocado cultivation won’t occur until 5,000 BCE, the prehistoric fruit already has many fans during the Miocene epoch.

Enter: the gomphotheres. This almost-mythic beast was absolutely huge. Imagine an elephant’s must larger older brother. Unlike the modern-day elephant, gomphotheres had four tusks that were rounded. Since they were so large, they could eat many of the huge-to-us flora that existed during its lifetime. One of the most notable was the avocado. This prehistoric fruit had (and still does!) a large pit in the center that only very large beasts could eat and digest whole.

Besides being a delicious and nutritious treat for the gomphotheres, these beasts also helped the avocado by expelling avocado seeds wherever they roamed, allowing avocados to grow in new places. Since avocados require a male and female tree, if they remain in one place without new trees, mutations occur in the inbred fruits.

Without gomphotheres, and later, the giant sloth, the avocado would have gone extinct long ago. Although its massive pit still exists (much to the confusion of current-day scientists since there is no longer any animal that eats avocados whole), the avocado is now helped thrive by farmers all across the Americas making the avocado a year-round treat for humans across the globe.

Next time you’re enjoying avocado on toast or a chip covered in guacamole, give some thanks to the mighty gomphotheres who made sure that the fruit still exists today.

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Connie Barlow, The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms