Natural luck

The desert is surely flooding this week. And my thoughts are with a plant with a name I can’t recall which clings to life like a man hanging from a cliff by his fingers. The plant evolved during a period when Southern California resembled the savannas of Africa, and mega-fauna like mammoths, camels, giant ground sloths and sabre-tooth cats roamed the margins of a chain of enormous lakes stretching from Victorville to Las Vegas. At that time the plant relied on the abrasive action of the digestive tracts of herbivores to create cracks in the otherwise impenetrable outer coating of the seed, which is an adaptive trick to prevent the seed from germinating until it is ready to be deposited on the ground within a nurturing pile of dung. Without the giant herbivores of the Pleistocene the plant might go extinct, as there would be no way to ensure the right circumstance of abrasion and moisture to get the seed off to a good start. Though the big animals are now all vanished the plant has managed to hold on, finding tentative footing in the ecological niche of the desert arroyo, the one place nature has provided which serves as a suitable alternative to a camel’s gut. For when the flash floods arrive they wash the seed on a rugged ride down the impromptu river, chipping away at the external coating to deposit at last in a bank of soil rich in nutrients and moisture. A lucky last chance for a plant which gambled all on the stomachs of giants and found a lucky break in the flow of the flash flood.


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