, Volume 161, Issue 2, pp 221–226 | Cite as

The anomalous Kentucky coffeetree: megafaunal fruit sinking to extinction?

  • David N. ZayaEmail author
  • Henry F. Howe
Concepts, Reviews and Syntheses


The Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus, Fabaceae) is an ecological paradox. A rare tree in nature in eastern and central North America, G. dioicus produces legumes that are only known to be dispersed by water, but appear similar to fruits consumed and dispersed by elephants and rhinoceros. One would expect the pods to be consumed by livestock, but the pulp and seeds are toxic to cattle and sheep. We examine the puzzle of G. dioicus dispersal in light of its other reproductive and life history characteristics and find that it probably is a botanical anachronism, in terms of both a set of dispersal agents long extinct and habitats, including what we term megafaunal disclimaxes, which have disappeared. Large seeds, the megafaunal gestault of the fruit, a dioecious mating system, and shade-intolerance combined with vigorous cloning suggest a widely dispersed pioneer of Miocene through Pleistocene habitats profoundly altered by large-mammal herbivory. As to what ate it, we can only say there were once many candidates. We hypothesize that the plant is an ecological anachronism, sinking to extinction in the wild.


Botanical anachronism Megafaunal disclimax Gymnocladus dioicus Megafaunal fruit hypothesis Seed dispersal syndromes 



We thank Usama Ahmad, Luca Borghesio, Crystal Guzman, Maria Luisa Jorge, William Lu, Jennifer Ison, Andrea Kramer, Gabriela Nunez-Iturri, Manette Sandor, Carrie Seltzer, John Silander, Amy Sullivan, Bruce Tiffney, Mariana Valencia, Jenny Zambrano, and anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript. We gratefully acknowledge support from the Archbold Biological Station, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the National Science Foundation (DEB 0129081, 0516259). Procedures conformed to federal, state and local laws and permit regulations.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological Sciences (MC 066)University of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA

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