Monday, May 26, 2014

Thorny Trees and 20 Inch Tongues: A Case of Coevolution

A few days ago, I saw a very spiky-looking tree on the Bird of Prey Route near my house.  A few weeks ago, I saw another tree, much larger than this one, along the banks of Boulder Creek that had some enormous thorns on its branches as well, some of them easily six inches long, and super sharp on the end!  I don't know for certain what kind of tree this, or the Boulder Creek tree, is, but a good candidate I think is the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), or some other tree closely related to the honey locust.  Below is the picture of the tree that I took on the Bird of Prey Route.
And here is the picture that I took on my iPhone at Boulder Creek of this tree.  The thorns look pretty similar to those of the honey locust, and I think that the trunk of the tree looks pretty similar, too.
Now why do these trees have such huge thorns?  When it comes to nature, everything evolves with a purpose.  There is no reason why a living organism would evolve something without a purpose, especially something as involved as giant, six-inch long thorns.  The question is, what purpose do these thorns serve?  Well that's a darn good question, and I am very pleased you asked.  Much like the "thorns" that you can see on the tail of a Stegosaurus, they likely were to help keep the organism from being consumed.  We see similar thorns on the branches of some trees in the genus Acacia in Africa today.  There, the thorns help protect the tree from attacks from one of the largest plant predators alive today, the giraffe.  This tree....well, suffice it to say that you probably won't see many activists hugging this tree.

"Oh, maybe these thorns look deceptively big," you're thinking.  Wrong.  These thorns do not look deceptively big.  If anything, they look deceptively small.  These thorns are frickin' HUGE.

So the real question is, why the long thorns, Goldilocks?  Many paleontologists believe that, during the Pleistocene Epoch (which lasted from between around 2.5 MYA to about 12,000 years ago), many of North America's mega-herbivores, everything ranging from mammoths and mastodons, to giant ground sloths and the North American camel Camelops, could have been preying upon these trees.  Selective pressures slowly caused these trees to evolve protection against these mammalian mega-herbivores.  Mastodons especially had very robust teeth, which would almost certainly have made them excellent bark-munchers.

In Africa, the acacia tree, also known as the whistling thorn, the thorntree, or (my personal favorite) the wattle, has a very similar defense.  Unlike the honey locust of North America, however, the acacia tree still has to deal with intense predation today, and from a wide variety of herbivores, everything from gerenuk to giraffe, elephants to more giraffes.

You see, the giraffes love the acacia tree.  If giraffes had Facebook, then they all would like the "I <3 Acacia Trees" page.  I remember reading somewhere that they can eat up to 60 or 65 pounds of acacia leaves per day.  (To understand this, try imagining a large hunk of butter that weighs 60 or 65 pounds.  Now you have an idea of how many pounds that is.)  They love it so much that, if the acacia tree hadn't adapted to keep up with the continual browsing pressure, the giraffes might have loved the acacia trees to death!  In response, the acacia trees convergently evolved these sharp thorns, just like the honey locust tree in North America.  (We talk about convergent evolution quite a lot as it is one of my favorite topics, so click HERE to learn more about it!)  

The giraffes love the acacia, though.  They aren't going to give up on those lovely leaves, just like that!  So while these acacia trees evolved their thorns to protect their leaves, the giraffes evolved something spectacular: a prehensile tongue!  Don't believe me?  Well, one of my favorite things about the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is that you can feed the giraffes there.  And guess what: their tongues are HUGE!  Below, I have a video of my good friend Masaki Kleinkopf also feeding the giraffes!  Check out my gangsta hoodie, yo.  
So, yeah.  Suffice it to say, giraffes have frickin' long tongues.  And they use these TWENTY INCH LONG TONGUES to help circumnavigate through the acacia tree's poky and spiny maze of thorns to reach the leaves!  The acacia tree wasn't going to just take this lying down, though: no giraffe is going to be feeding on my leaves, yo!  So the acacia tree adapted again.  This time, by employing the use of tannins.

Long story short, tannins are used by humans in a variety of ways, including tanning, food processing, and making cocoa and wine.  They also apparently taste terrible.  Don't ask me, I've never tried it, but then again I don't have a 20 inch prehensile tongue, so it's a whole different ballgame.*

Not only do tannins taste terrible, but they inhibit the digestion of the leaf matter in a number of nasty ways, none of which would be all that fun for the giraffe.  So when a giraffe starts munching on the leaves of the acacia tree, that tree will release tannins to make the leaves taste like....well, leather I suppose.  (Again, haven't tried either.)  This tannin releasing is a pretty cool adaptation all on its lonseome.  The giraffe begins to move off to another acacia tree nearby.  However, if it's within 50 yards or so (especially downwind) of the original, now tanniny acacia, then the giraffe is out of luck: the nearby acacias react in turn, releasing their own tannins, and rendering their leaves almost indigestible to the giraffes, as well!  I would imagine that, because of this, giraffes have in turn developed the behavior of moving upwind as they eat, and a cursory glance over the Internet indicates that this does seem to be a behavior observed in giraffes!  Coevolution at its finest!

Make sure to check back soon for our next episode in our coevolution series, all about a very fun little squirrel!  See you then!  In the meantime, you can read about what coevolution actually is, by clicking HERE.

*The second baseball metaphor that I believe has been used on this blog.  Refer to "23-Fact Tuesday: Prairie Falcon, Red-Tailed Hawk, and Great-Horned Owl at the Dino Hotel" and "Eye Black: What Works for Football Players Works for the Cheetah" to learn more about this sport.  

Works Cited:

Andersen, K. (n.d.). No Place to Run, No Place to Hide. . Retrieved July 24, 2013, from

Hughes, S. (n.d.). Alarm Scent Warns Other Trees to Kill. . Retrieved July 24, 2013, from

Krulwich, R. (2008, February 22). Mastodons in Manhattan: A Botanical Puzzle. . Retrieved May 21, 2014, from

Little Jr., E. L. (n.d.). Digital Representations of Tree Species Range Maps from "Atlas of United States Trees" by Elbert L. Little, Jr. (and other publications). . Retrieved May 21, 2014, from

Locust Tree Thorns. (n.d.). . Retrieved May 21, 2014, from


  1. Thanks for your great information on honey locusts!

    I'm a biologist and would love to see these trees. Are you willing to share their locations?


    Dr. Jeffrey Kidder

    1. Certainly, Dr. Kidder. If you search for the frontage road that goes near the Cosco in Superior, Colorado (the road should be called Marshall Road), you should see a dirt road on the left hand side, as you drive towards the mountains. It's a bit rough and steep in some spots, but certainly worth it in my opinion! Go ahead and shoot me an email if you'd like further directions, I should be able to pinpoint it on a map for you if you like.


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