Readers’ wildlife photos

February 14, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have another educational photo-and-text post by Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. His narrative is indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

A hard flower to crack

Brazil nuts are high up in the list of superfoods, a gimmicky but highly profitable market. For some internet sages, the nuts protect you against inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and cancer; and, inescapably as superfoods go, they are loaded with ‘antioxidants that fight free radicals’ – a scientifically baseless but commercially catchy label. Hype aside, Brazil nuts are highly nutritious: they are loaded with proteins, carbohydrates, unsaturated lipids, vitamins and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. But their main claim to fame is to be one of the best sources of selenium, an essential element for a range of metabolic processes in our bodies. These nuts have their detractors because of the unlikely risk of selenium poisoning for those who overindulge in them, and the danger posed by aflatoxins (carcinogens produced by certain fungi) when the nuts are not stored properly. The healthy aspects of Brazil nuts are clearly winning over the popular perception because the European and American markets keep growing steadily. Which is good news for the main nut producers Bolivia (the world’s major exporter), Brazil and Peru.

Assorted nuts, essential while watching a match on the telly © Melchoir, Wikimedia Commons.

The nuts are in fact seeds extracted from the hard, coconut-like fruits produced by the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa). Named excelsa (high, exalted, lofty) by naturalists and explorers Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, this is one of the tallest trees in the Amazon region. Some individuals reach heights of 30 to 50 m, with trunks of 1 to 2 m in diameter – up to 5 m in older specimens. And they can live a long time: radiocarbon dating has identified some 800- and 1000-year-old trees (Camargo et al., 1994).

Brazil nuts are gathered from fruits fallen to the forest floor during the rainy season. The work, carried out by native people and small farmers, has one serious risk: the thick-walled fruit of the Brazil nut tree is 10-15 cm in diameter and weighs on average 750 g. A fruit of this size falling from about 7 m generates sufficient kinetic energy to fracture a skull and cause severe to fatal injuries (Ideta et al., 2021).

A Brazil nut fruit and seeds in their shells, and seeds ready for the market © P.S. Sena and Quadell, Wikimedia Commons.

Brazil nuts are harvested almost entirely from wild trees because tree cultivation has been largely unsuccessful. One of the reasons for the failure to turn the tree into a farm commodity is its pollination requirements.

The Brazil nut tree reproduces by cross-fertilisation, but its flower is not the run-of-the-mill, pollinator-friendly structure found in most plants. It has a curled extension – called a ligule – that forms a hood over the petals, which are pressed together like an inverted cup. Ligule and petals create a chamber that conceals stamens, stigma, and the nectaries. To access the nectar, an insect has to squeeze itself between the ligule and the tightly packed petals. If successful, the visitor may come out dusted with pollen and transfer it to another flower.

The inflorescence of a Brazil nut tree © Scott Mori, The New York Botanical Garden, Lecythidaceae – the Brazil nut family:

The flowers of the Brazil nut tree receive many visitors, including hummingbirds, moths, butterflies, beetles, and several bees. But getting into a flower for its nectar is not for the nimble or weak; only the largest and strongest bees can lift the ligule to reach the reproductive organs.  This select heavyweight club includes bumblebees (Bombus spp.), Centris spp., Epicharis spp., orchid bees (Eulaema spp.), and carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.).

An E. meriana orchid bee (L) and a large carpenter bee (X. mexicanorum), two of the robust bees capable of handling a Brazil nut tree flower © Insects Unlocked, Wikimedia Commons:

In the central Amazon rainforest, the orchid bee E. mocsaryi and carpenter bee X. frontalis are especially important Brazil nut tree pollinators because of their abundance and frequency of flower visitations (Cavalcante et al., 2012). Watch X. frontalis hard at work.

An E. mocsaryi orchid bee forces itself between the ligule and the tightly packed petals of flower of the Brazil nut tree © Cavalcante et al., Wikimedia Commons:

The large bees that pollinate the Brazil nut tree can fly long distances, which is important for maintaining the trees’ genetic diversity: trees typically grow in groups of individuals that are isolated from each other in the forest. These bees are solitary or semi-social, and none of them have been domesticated; so their survival depends on the natural habitats that supply nesting sites, food – one type of tree alone will not provide for the whole season – and other resources such as orchid fragrances, which are collected by male orchid bees.

Other characters play an important part in the life of a Brazil nut tree: rodents. The fruit capsule is too hard for most animals that could be interested in the nutritious seeds – but not to agoutis (Dasyprocta spp.). Thanks to their powerful teeth, they can gnaw their way to the seeds. Sometimes an agouti can’t eat all the seeds at once, so the prudent animal takes them some distance away (up to 20 m) and buries them as a food reserve for leaner times. But it so happens that the agouti’s memory is not the sharpest; it often forgets the way back to the food cache. Or the agouti itself may become a meal for a large cat before returning to its seeds. Either way, the buried seeds germinate. This unintentional planting by agoutis, pacas (Cuniculus spp.) and the southern Amazon red squirrel (Sciurus spadiceus) is the only route to seed dispersal for the Brazil nut tree, thus is vital for its survival. Follow the exploits of a forgetful agouti in the forest.

A red-rumped agouti (Dasyprocta leporina) © Alastair Rae, Wikimedia Commons:

As one can imagine, these required interactions with bees and rodents don’t bode well for the future of the Brazilian nut tree. Amazonian ecosystems have been eroded away by the relentless march of deforestation and land conversion to agriculture and pastures. To make things worse for the tree, its wood is highly valuable (its felling is illegal, but that doesn’t stop illegal loggers). One of the consequences of the devastation is the increasing scarcity of Brazil nuts in Brazil, which helps explain why Bolivia took the lead as the main exporter.

We may take the hard-nosed view that we can’t do anything about the plight of the Brazil nut tree, but that’s not quite right. One could be inquisitive and demanding about the origin of a nice piece of hardwood furniture for sale, or the juicy steak in a restaurant or supermarket freezer (much of exported South American beef comes from deforested areas). Or we could accept a life without Brazil nuts: after all, to us they are just comfort food. But the tree’s demise could be a portent. In the 1980s, doomsday prophet Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne Ehrlich famously compared species’ roles in an ecosystem to rivets in an aeroplane’s wing. Aircraft manufacturers use more rivets than necessary to affix the wings, so removing a few of them would make little difference. But if they continue to be taken away, at some point a critical rivet is lost, and the aeroplane will crash. Similarly, how many species can you lose before an ecosystem fails? We don’t have an answer for that, or even know whether the Ehrlichs’ model is realistic. The eventual loss of the Brazil nut tree could be just one redundant rivet popped out of the body of biodiversity; or it could be a warning of bad things to come to bees, agoutis, the forest and its peoples, and, at the end of the queue, to us, sophisticated Brazil nut munchers.

The Brazil nut tree is the symbol of the Amazon Forest. Its size makes it difficult to capture it whole in a photo © upper left: My Favorite Pet Sitter; lower left: mauroguanandi; right: Edsongrandisoli, Wikimedia Commons:

If Brazil nuts aren’t available, you could get your fix of ‘antioxidant’ superfood from a bowl of creamy açaí (ah-sah-ee). For centuries, berries of the açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea) have been a staple food for the people in the Amazon, thanks to the fruits’ high caloric content. In the 1990s, açaí, served as frozen pulp or juice, became a fashionable street food in Brazilian cities. In no time the purplish berry left its swampy Amazonian plains to conquer the world: today açaí na tigela (açaí on a bowl) is available in restaurants and health food joints across Europe, America and Japan.

Açaí berries, and a traditional bowl of açaí and banana © CostaPPPR (L) and chahayes, Wikimedia Commons:

Açaí generates an estimated US$ 1 billion/yr for the Brazilian economy, and the market is growing at a brisk pace. Most berries are harvested from palms growing in the wild, and everyone enjoying their benefits – subsistence farmers, traders, exotic food buffs and the taxman – must be grateful to the insects that pollinate the palm’s inflorescences, mostly stingless bees.

Stingless bees Trigona pallens, big contributors to the Brazilian economy © Nemésio et al. 2013:

The açaí berry and Brazil nuts are just two of several pollination-dependent products exported from Brazil and many other countries. When all the data is put together, it is estimated that more than 50% of the world’s exported crop products depend on pollinators.

Log-transformed tons of exported pollination-dependent Brazilian crops, 2001–2015 © Silva et al., 2021:

Deforestation, fires and habitat degradation – which includes the spread of crop monocultures – threaten this global pollination-based trade, with heftier consequences for developing countries.  We may shrug our collective shoulders at what seems to be other people’s problems, but we must remember that a significant portion of the vitamins and minerals essential for our diet comes from insect-pollinated food, and most of it is imported. Many types of apples, pears, avocados, citrus fruits (e.g., orange, tangerine, limes, grapefruit) cucurbits (such as melon, courgette, cucumber, squash), peas and beans benefit from or are greatly dependent on insect pollinators, although some varieties are self-fertile and need none. Most vegetables consumed in the UK don’t require pollination for yield, but many of them may need pollinators for seed production; these include brassicas (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc.), carrot, fennel and parsley.

Pollination is important for our nutritional needs, and also for a few of our pleasures and indulgences. We may carry on through life without a bowl of açaí or a bag of Brazil nuts, but much less happily in the absence of coffee or cacao (hence chocolate), both of which need pollinators for adequate yield and high crop quality. House parties are more satisfying when stocked with almonds and cashews, none of which would be available without insect pollinators. If it wasn’t for bees, Worcestershire sauce wouldn’t be on the dinner table, at least not in its existing version. The condiment contains tamarind extract, and the tamarind tree needs bees for pollination. The list of examples can be quite long.

The Covid pandemic has sharpened our attention to food security, so perhaps pollination, which is important to our diet, health, wellbeing and economy, will get a brighter spotlight. But just like climate change, threats to this ecological service are not confined by borders. Deforestation, pollution, wildfires and biodiversity losses may hurt far-flung places first, but their effects will cascade down to us. More than ever, it’s time to ‘think globally, act globally’.

24 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Fascinating stuff. I’m a voracious consumer of nuts of all kinds (I think that makes me a “nucivore”, although my Latin isn’t great), so it’s really interesting to hear where they come from. I think I had a vague idea that Brazil nuts were harvested from the wild rather than cultivated, but I didn’t know the details. I’ll savour them all the more from now on.

  2. Fascinating information on Brazil nuts, thank you. They are one of my favorite nuts.
    Many years ago I had a Macaw as a pet and the grandchildren came to visit. I warned them about a parrots beak and little fingers but decided that a demonstration would be better. We took a Brazil nut outside put it on the sidewalk and they took turns hitting it with a hammer. After a few minutes of beating on the nut and not cracking the shell they were convinced it was a tough nut to crack. (Sorry)
    Then we went inside I gave the Mccaw a Brazil nut and he cracked it open in seconds.
    They had a new respect for the power of that beak.

  3. I appreciate the photographs Athayde Tonhasca Júnior picks to accompany his posts, but have come to look forward even more so to his pellucid prose and wit.

    Thanks for your contributions, ATJ.

  4. Fascinating! I had no idea how weird Brazil nuts are. I assumed that they grew singly, like hickory nuts or acorns. Never assume!

  5. Brazil nuts are the only food that I’m allergic to. Even a small piece of a nut causes sores in my mouth and throat. I think I’d be in serious trouble if a ate a whole one.

  6. Brazil nuts are hard to crack individually, and it looks like the fruit is pretty impregnable as well. Could this be another case of a plant co-evolving with megaherbivores, relying on them to distribute the seeds?
    ISTR that this is the case with the avocado. The megaherbivores that it relied upon to eat its fruit and scarify the seeds so they’d successfully germinate are now gone, and if humans hadn’t domesticated it, the avocado would be as well.
    Evidently agoutis are helping the brazil nut propagate in the wild, but I wonder if gomphotheres and giant ground sloths might not have been more effective agents in the past.

  7. Let me just say that the colloquial name that was used to identify this particular nut during my childhood (in Arkansas) would get your cancelled before you finished the sentence.

    1. Riiiight. I learned it from my grandfather. N-toes. And that was in California. Don’t need to be in the deep south for racist memes to proliferate. Regardless, I’m not too fond of them unless crushed and incorporated somehow.

      I was amazed by Athayde’s excellent description of how the coconut-like, dangerous-falling, tree-nut ends up in a nut bowl at the average human gathering going way back…

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