Ecology

Fruits of a gamble

All that summer brings to us city-dwellers is uncomfortable heat that induces lethargy and stupor. But, for the web of life, Sun, the energy source that powers life on Earth shining gloriously, summer is a season of dramatic action.

While looking at a Peepal tree donning purple-red leaves as its summer wear to participate in this drama, I am reminded of a wonderful story, a tale of a successful gamble, fruits of which we all are enjoying today.

With well defined seasons, Indian trees have their work well cut out. They have to capitalize on the small window of monsoon rains when life-nurturing water can be available for their seeds to sprout. Unfortunately for our native trees, our monsoon follows one of the hottest summers of our planet. There are long months of dehydrating heat before the rains, making the task of being ready with seeds extremely challenging.

A lot of native trees deal with this challenge by being frugal and conservative. As most of the moisture is lost through leaves, they shed all their leaves to prevent water-loss and focus only on incurring the energy cost of making flowers. This strategy does have its merits because, with all trees of a region flowering simultaneously, chances of pollination improve dramatically. So it has worked well for trees that opted for it. But, by being not too flamboyant, these trees have made a compromise.

As these trees operate without energy-producing leaves, they are forced to work on a tight budget. They do bring a great amount of drama by flowering aggressively that makes them attractive to pollinators, but their entire energy budget gets exhausted in this process, making them fall short in the next stage of the game, i.e. seed dispersal.

For any tree, seed dispersal is a tricky business as, if the seeds germinate nearby, they will end up competing with the parent tree. So, making the seeds travel far and wide is critical for a tree. But, with no internal resources left, leafless trees have no real option but to depend mainly on an external force, the wind. So, many of them have evolved aerodynamic pods that can ride the wind and move afar. But there is always a limit to what wind can deliver.

Thankfully, in the market of life, there are also some risk-takers that have aimed beyond what wind can deliver. And fruits are part of the solution that these gamblers have brought to our dinning tables.

These brave trees have opted for the risky idea of growing fresh leaves during the dehydrating Indian summer. By having leaves, they do risk loss of water, but leaves also allow them to exploit abundant sunlight to produce more energy, some of which can be used to grow fruits.

Interestingly, fruit is actually a useless, almost wasteful storage of nutrients for the tree, as precious energy stored in it is not for the seed it encapsulates. But, this stupid looking idea is actually a very smart ploy evolved by trees to solve the seed dispersal problem.

Every fruit is nothing but a bribe offered by the tree to fellow creatures to encourage them to work for the cause of the tree. A fruit-bearing tree invites those with wings and feet to carry its seeds in exchange of free energy rich food. So, by evolving fruits, these trees have escaped the limitations of wind-borne dispersal and have now become free-riders roaming far and wide. And, with a fruit-loving ape colonizing the entire planet today, this fruity solution has paid unprecedented dividends, as we have helped them spread across the globe.

So, next time you eat a fruit, admire it not only for its taste but also for the successful gamble that has made it reach your plate.

DNA: 10/4/16

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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