Quirks & Quarks

How Humans Saved the Pumpkin from Extinction

Humans replaced Mastodons as the dispersers of seeds for the evolutionary ancestors of modern pumpkins, squash and gourds in North America.

Pumpkins and Squashes had a near-death experience in North America

Pumpkins, Squashes and Gourds (George Perry/Penn State)
The family of plants that includes pumpkins, squashes and gourds had a near-death experience, more than 10,000 years ago in North America. The natural ancestors of these now-domesticated species were tough, thick-rinded, softball-sized vegetables containing intensely bitter compounds. And at the time that the last Ice Age was winding down, they were drastically reduced in diversity and range.

Dr. Logan Kistler, a research fellow in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, who did this work as a research fellow at Penn State University, thinks he knows why this happened. Small herbivores would have had difficulty eating these plants, but large animals like mastodons and gomphotheres would have had no difficulty with their toughness or taste, would have eaten them, and distributed their seeds in their dung.

But when these big herbivores went extinct, so nearly did the pumpkins and squashes. It was only because newly-arrived humans learned to farm them, and to breed tastier versions of them, that allowed many of these plants to survive.

Related Links

- Paper in PNAS
- Penn State University release
Not Exactly Rocket Science blog
Popular Science article