The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms / Edition 1

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A new vision is sweeping through ecological science: The dense web of dependencies that makes up an ecosystem has gained an added dimension-the dimension of time. Every field, forest, and park is full of living organisms adapted for relationships with creatures that are now extinct. In a vivid narrative, Connie Barlow shows how the idea of "missing partners" in nature evolved from isolated, curious examples into an idea that is transforming how ecologists understand the entire flora and fauna of the Americas. This fascinating book will enrich the experience of any amateur naturalist, as well as teach us that the ripples of biodiversity loss around us are just the leading edge of what may well become perilous cascades of extinction.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
This new area of evolutionary research shows how the effects of long-extinct animals can still be seen all around us in the Americas. In this scientific but intensely personal book, Barlow explains how fruiting plants such as the Osage orange and the honey locust are still waiting, after all these years, for their partners, the great beasts -- mammoths, giant ground sloths, early horses, and even camels -- that once dominated the American landscape. The plants had evolved their large, tasty fruits to entice the mammals to carry their seeds to some (hopefully) auspicious new location. The book is illustrated with poignant photographs of the plants with the fossilized remains of their long-departed partners.
Peter S. White
The Ghosts of Evolution will enrich your understanding of our time and place in nature.
Carl Zimmer
Carries readers back to those glorious Pleistocene days, not with fossils but with the fruits and beetles and other organisms that coexisted with them and still bear their evolutionary marks today.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1982, respected ecologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin published a short, provocative paper in the journal Science, asserting that many fruits found in Central American forests "are adapted primarily for animals that have been extinct for thirteen thousand years." As those species went the way of the dodo, the fruits lost their initial means of dispersal, but continued to eke out a system of procreation, Janzen and Martin explained. Their insight led to the methodological realization that to fully understand the evolutionary forces shaping these fruits, scientists must first determine the behavior of the extinct animals. Science writer Barlow (From Gaia to Selfish Genes) extends this compelling idea into a narrative stretching from the Pleistocene era up through the inception, rejection and gradual, partial acceptance of this theory by the ecological science community. The large, pendulous seedpods of a honey locust, Barlow shows, evoke the ghosts of mammoths that used to disperse the seeds. Although there are some beautiful passages, too often the writing is precious and repetitive. Barlow details her own rather simplistic observations of certain plants e.g., persimmon, osage orange and ginkgo whose anachronistic existence is similar to the Central American fruits, but she does not contribute significantly to the underlying theory. Janzen and Martin explained their ideas in nine pages. Barlow, with 20 years of hindsight and 25 times as many pages, embellishes the story convincingly but doesn't add much new information. Photos not seen by PW. (May 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The world is always a better place for having people in it who ask "Why?" This child-like inquiry often can poke a hole through the wall of ignorance and open up whole realms of study. Ecologist Dan Janzen saw that many large tropical fruits simply fell and rotted, "going nowhere." There were no animals large enough to eat and consequently disperse them through normal means. Why? Were the animals that evolved along with these trees long gone? What animals were they and why did they vanish? How did the trees survive without them—and what flora went extinct with the animals? Dan Janzen wrote a surprisingly controversial article with Paul Martin (writer of this book's foreword) that led, 20 years later, to Connie Barlow's expanded investigation. "The Age of Great Mammals has indeed ended everywhere except southern Africa and patches of tropical Asia... in Europe and non-tropical regions of Asia, it petered out in steps between 50,000 and 15,000 years ago, when the straight tusked elephants, woolly mammoths, rhinos and other great beasts of the Pleistocene epoch vanished... North America lost 68 percent of its genetic richness..." Barlow goes on to list the "missing partners" of many fruit, including most notably the avocado and the honey locust (with its large, sweet-tasting pods) and makes us almost long for repletion of what was once an American Serengeti. In fact (in a gear shift present in the book), there are those who would like to "restart the evolution of an extinct order, the proboscideans: the elephants, the mammoths, the mastodons." Russian scientist Sergei Zimov is hoping to bring Canadian wood bison, reindeer and moose back to Siberia after 2,000 years, creating their ownPleistocene Park. This is heady stuff, but fascinating. It is startling to realize that just 200 years ago "Western humans had no awareness of extinction." Thomas Jefferson truly thought and hoped that Lewis and Clark would discover mammoths. "Such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of animals to become extinct..." Jefferson was unfortunately wrong, but one can't fault him for the dream. There are several dreamers—backed by scientific observation—in The Ghosts of Evolution. It will be interesting to see where their dreams take us. Recommended for all libraries. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Perseus, Basic Books, 291p. illus. bibliog. index., Gillen
Scientists have long realized that some inherited traits were evolved for conditions that no longer exist, but American science writer Barlow looks at a particular set of cases: fruit in the Americas that were designed to be eaten, so dispersing seeds, by animals that are long extinct. In particular, she looks at such trees as the avocado, honey locust, and ginkgo whose partners were large mammals<-- >elephants, ground sloths, and others<-->that died out suddenly about 13,000 years ago. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465005529
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 316,638
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Connie Barlow is an editor and author of several books including Green Space, Green Time. She lives in Rockland County, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

In October 1977, Dan Janzen, an ecologist then in his late thirties, wrote to the famous paleontologist Paul Martin, saying "I've got a screwy idea." What had led to Janzen's "screwy idea" was a mundane observation about the Costa Rican jungle that, as he thought about it more and more, made less and less sense: there was a lot of uneaten fruit lying around on the jungle floor. Fruit evolved to be eaten-it's a strategy plants employ to get animals to scatter their seeds-so such massive piles of rotting fruit made no evolutionary sense. Janzen wanted Martin to tell him what animals might have eaten the fruit in past eras. The paper the two co-wrote, published in Science in 1982, became an enduring classic in the ecological literature.

Janzen and Martin had put their finger on an unnoticed contradiction in ecological thought. First, ecologists know that all living species evolve intricate, mutually dependent relationships with other species. In other words, they coevolve. Second, ecologists had also assumed that all species are ideally adapted for their present environment. But what happens when a partner in one of these mutually dependent relationships goes extinct? The remaining partner is no longer perfectly adapted: it becomes an ecological anachronism. At first such anachronisms were considered rare curiosities, but as increasing numbers have been discovered, they have emerged as an important element in understanding how ecosystems work. For the first time, the concept of deep time has entered ecological science and is changing the practice of both ecology and conservation biology.

The Ghosts of Evolution is the first book of any kind to pull together all the various elements of the "missing partners" idea. It's a report on a scientific program in its infancy-so new, in fact, that the cutting edge is well within reach of any amateur naturalist. In this delightful book, Connie Barlow finds new examples of North American anachronisms, ventures into mountain caves to dig up fresh sloth dung from 15,000 years ago, and does experiments at her kitchen sink that call into question the published theories of professional ecologists. She finds evolutionary ghosts on New York City streets, in her sister's backyard in Michigan, and on her neighbors' ranches in the desert southwest. After reading this book, you won't be able to look at a nearby park or even a shopping-mall parking lot without seeing the remnants of the elephants, camels, rhinos and lions that once roamed North America.

Not since Bernd Heinrich's classic Ravens in Winter has the scientific frontier been so down-to-earth and accessible, or had such a wonderfully inventive and determined proponent.

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Table of Contents

1 Ghost Stories 1
2 Ecological Anachronisms and Their Missing Partners 27
3 The Megafaunal Dispersal Syndrome 51
4 Advancing the Theory 71
5 A Fruitful Longing 95
6 Extreme Anachronisms 119
7 Armaments from Another Era 149
8 Who Are the Ghosts? 181
9 Consequences 207
10 The Great Work 227
Epilogue 241
Acknowledgments 243
Notes 247
References 267
Index 285
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Interviews & Essays

An Exclusive Interview with Connie Barlow

Barnes & First, let me say your book is fascinating. One aspect that really hits home is the underlying fact that North and South America were home to so many great beasts -- not just the mammoths, which people might be aware of, but camels, 18-foot-tall sloths, and, of course, horses. Do you hope readers will take away an expanded idea of what "wild" America really means?

Connie Barlow: When I started working on this book, I knew that America had been a land of very big and diverse beasts until the end of last glacial advance, about 13,000 years ago. But it hadn't really sunk in that our prairies and plains had supported wildlife just as magnificent as on Africa's Serengeti. So today, whenever I come upon anachronistic fruits native to this continent, these magnificent ghosts of evolution come to mind.

B& What do you mean by "anachronistic fruits"? And how do these fruits bring to mind extinct mammoths and sloths?

CB: Anachronistic fruits are fruits in a time warp. After tens of millions of years of offering energy-rich and nutritious pulp to beasts with mouths and stomachs and anuses big enough to disperse their seeds, plants like wild avocado in Mexico and papaya in South America, along with honey locust and Kentucky coffee tree in the eastern United States, osage orange and persimmon in the Midwest, and gourds and cactus fruit in the desert -- all these fruits now mostly just rot where they fall. There are no longer elephants or giant sloths to defecate seed-rich, steaming heaps of dung. The extinct partners are now just ghosts.

B& Are anachronistic fruits easy to find?

CB: Some, like Kentucky coffee tree, have become quite rare in the wild because they miss their seed dispersal partners. But any anachronistic fruits or plants that humans regard as tasty or useful are easy to come upon. You can actually find anachronistic fruits in grocery stores. Look for ghosts near the avocado bins. Avocado is native to Mexico. Who else but an elephant or a giant sloth could swallow and defecate a seed that big? Two other North American trees bearing anachronistic fruits are commonly planted for shade along city sidewalks and in suburban parking lots. In these places, watch for the long, curling pods of honey locust and the stinky orange spheres of ginkgo.

B& As you say, mammoths and giant sloths became ghosts 13,000 years ago. Do those extinctions, and especially how they affected plants, have anything to teach us about the extinctions happening today?

CB: Thirteen thousand years ago, the Americas experienced an "extinction of the massive." Today we are compounding the problem by triggering a mass extinction of our own making. The ghosts of evolution and ecological anachronisms remind us that it is not just the extinguished lineages of animals and plants that suffer, but also the partners left behind. Animals tend to be the most vulnerable to human actions. So if we drive animals into extinction, are we ready to step in and take their place as seed dispersers and pollinators of the plant world? Extinction is something we may do today, but countless generations of humans will bear the consequences -- and hence the call to become gardeners of the whole planet! It is a frightening thought.

B& This is a new area of ecological and evolutionary research, as you indicate in the book. What remains to be done?

CB: So much remains to be done! Ecologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin first came up with the idea of anachronistic fruits and their missing animal partners 24 years ago. Dan works mostly in Costa Rica, and Paul in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico. So they've scrutinized a number of the plants native to those landscapes, looking for anachronistic fruits. But nobody yet has done even a cursory study of candidate anachronisms in the woodlands of the eastern United States -- honey locust, Kentucky coffee tree, Osage orange, pawpaw, persimmon.

B& But you give a lot of coverage to those very plants right in your book. How was that possible if the studies haven't been done?

CB: At first, the lack of published research on anachronistic fruits close to home was a big problem for me. But then I saw it as an opportunity. I saw it as an opportunity to make the natural history observations and do the library research myself. You know, much of the ecological science of the 20th century had its roots in natural history observations made in the previous century. The natural history comes first, then the science. Well, what I found is that the heyday of natural history is not yet over. Given this new perspective of the ghosts of evolution, the natural history of large fruits of eastern North America, including observations of how our remnant mammals interact with them, will become vital for moving ecological sciences to the next level -- recognizing that there are lost worlds we must envision when trying to understand our own.

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