Once in awhile I find something that piques my interest that is different from the usual WUWT fare. This was one of those. I like this fellows blog because 1) I like hot peppers 2) I enjoyed his writing style 3) Given all the hot talk on climate lately, this seemed like a good topic to cool everybody off with – Anthony
Hot Peppers – Why Are They Hot?
But there are other kinds of co-evolution between plants and herbivores. Some plants need to have a part eaten – usually the seed – so they can propagate themselves. So, they evolved fruits. The seeds are enveloped in meaty, juicy, tasty packages of pure energy. Those fruits often evolve a sweet smell that can be detected from a distance. And the fruits are often advertised with bright colors – red, orange, yellow, green or purple: “Here I am! Here I am! Please eat me!”
So, the hot peppers are a real evolutionary conundrum. On one hand, they are boldly colored and sweet-smelling fruits – obvious sign of advertising to herbivores. On the other hand, once bitten into, they are far too hot and spicy to be a pleasant experience to the animal. So, what gives?
Back in 1960s, Dan Johnson had an interesting proposal he dubbed “directed deterrence” which suggested that some plants may make choices as to exactly which herbivores to attract and which to deter. Hot peppers are prime candidates for such a phenomenon. What is hot in peppers is capsaicin, a chemical that elicits a sensation of pain when it bind the vanilloid receptors in the nerve endings (usually inside the mouth) of the trigeminal nerve. As it happens, all mammals have capsaicin receptors, but it was found, relatively recently, that birds do not.
To test that hypothesis, Josh Tewksbury used two variants of hot peppers – one very hot (Capsicum annuum) and the other with a mutation that made it not hot at all (Capsicum chacoense) – and offered both as meals to rodents (packrats and cactus mice) and to birds (curve-billed thrashers).
All species ate the sweet kind about equally. When Josh offered them identically prepared meals made out of the hot stuff, the two rodents refused to eat it while the birds happily munched on it.
The study appeared in 2001 in Nature (pdf) and I saw Josh give a talk about it at that time as he was joining our department to postdoc with Dr.Nick Haddad. While my lab-buddy Chris and I gave him a lot of grief in the Q&A session on his lenient criteria of what constitutes a “hungry animal” (he needed them to be hungry for the feeding tests), still the main conclusions of the study are OK.
More importantly, it really happens in nature. Mammals avoid hot peppers out in Arizona where Josh studied them (and made videos of their behavior), but the birds gorged on peppers. When he analyzed the droppings of rodents and birds fed peppers, he saw that seeds that passed through avian intestinal tracts were fully fertile, while seeds eaten by mammals were chewed, crushed, broken or semi-digested and not fertile at all.
Additionally, the thrashers tend to spend a lot of time on fruiting shrubs of different kinds. While there, they poop. The hot pepper seeds in the droppings germinate right there and this is an ideal shady spot for them to grow.
What a great example of (co)evolutionary adaptations. Next time on this blog, the second Big Question: Why do we like to eat hot peppers?
UPDATE: I’ve added this chart of Pepper “hotness” below, to help you gauge what to eat and what not to eat (or spray). – Anthony
Source: Calbob.com and Wikipedia’s Scoville Scale