The Amazing Story Behind The Brazil Nut

I love nuts. And, while you’re all chuckling at your inner “why am I not surprised?” jokes, I’ll go on to say that Brazil nuts have always been one of my favorite kinds. Mind you, this is in direct contrast to almost everyone I grew up around. A cultural distaste, I suspect, that derives from the Brazil nut’s rather unfortunate nickname.

But I had no idea what a true miracle of nature they were until I watched the National Geographic Channel’s awesome How Nature Works program the other night. Which, as you can see from the show’s web page blurb, dealt with issues far beyond the story behind one of my favorite nuts…

“Our planet is home to over ten million species, but not one of them can survive on its own. How Nature Works sheds new light on the relationships among plants and animals that keep our world spinning. Travel high up into the trees of East Africa with the giraffes and witness how their ability to eat around termites makes homes for the geckos. Journey deep into the forests of North America where a caterpillar munches holes in leaves that allow for essential light to penetrate the forest floor.”

But it wasn’t until they got around to the Brazil nut story that I really began to pay attention. That was because of the unlikely symbiotic relationship between the Brazil nut tree, its flowers and seed pods, a rainforest Orchid called Coryanthes vasquezii, the sex lives of Euglossa Orchid bees, and feeding habits of a tropical rodent called Agouti!

Unfortunately, try as I might, I was unable to find video from the show to post here. So, I’m going to attempt tell the story my way, beginning with these nice images…

Images via Senior Study: Fruits & Nuts, ARKive, OrchidWeb, Brazil nuts nutrition facts, The Brazil Nut Industry, and ZooKeys

Despite it’s name, the Brazil nut tree is indigenous throughout the Amazon rainforests of South America, and is one of the true giants of that region. Living as long as 100 years and growing to heights of 150 feet or more, a single mature tree can produce more than 250 pounds of nuts a year, in seed pods weighing nearly 5 pounds apiece, each containing as many as 2 dozen individual nuts.

Despite is awesome longevity, size, and value to nuts lover’s all over the world – not to mention its importance to the nearly $50 million per year Brazil nut industry – this Amazonian giant has a perilous existence. Facing threats not only from human deforestation and competing species, the tree’s very own method of reproduction makes it extremely vulnerable to even the smallest changes in the ecosystem it lives in.

First of all, the Brazil nut tree flowers for only a single day each year. And the flowers are so tough to deal with that only the female Euglossa Orchid bee has the strength required to get to the nectar inside to make pollination possible. But the existence of this very muscular (and finicky) bee is entirely dependent on its ability to mate, and it mates, of course, with only the very best smelling males of her species!

And to achieve just the right degree of fragrance, the male Euglossa bees are forced to spend most of their time pollinating the Coryanthes vasquezii variety of Orchid – not for its nectar, mind you, but to gather the flower’s scent, using forearms specifically evolved for that purpose, which it then carries around in pockets on its hind legs that have evolved specifically for that purpose as well – all in the hope of being selected as a suitable mate!

After all that, it still takes the seed pod (the “fruit”) a full 14 months to achieve its near 5 pound maturity after the flowers are pollinated. And boy howdy, once that happens, it’s be on the lookout to anyone and anything below!

I think I’ll just let Sir David Attenborough, in this clip from the BBC’s The Private Life of Plants, take us through the next part:

As amazingly complex as the life cycle of the Brazil nut tree is, it wasn’t until scientists actually took the extraordinary step of tying long strings with ribbons at the end around individual seeds and then resealing the pods for Agouti to find and bury (as well as for other Agouti to steal and then re-bury), that they were able to learn exactly how it was that this incredible tree had managed to spread across such a vast region!

And while human harvesting of Brazil nuts might include climbing the trees to retrieve the pods for transport to modern production facilities, the rest of the process still works pretty much the same way it’s done by the Agouti. Because of the delicately balanced ecosystem required for Brazil nut trees to thrive, producing the nuts using traditional farming methods simply hasn’t proven to be economically viable.

So, for those of us who love these nuts, as well as anyone who cares about protecting and maintaining endangered ecosystems, it’s pretty obvious that a proper understanding of nature’s amazingly intricate web of interconnections is of paramount importance! 😀

I want ice water.

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10 thoughts on “The Amazing Story Behind The Brazil Nut

  1. I had no idea nuts could involve such a complicated process. I guess I assumed the trees just grew, sprouted nuts every year, and dropped them. That was the case with a neighbor’s pecan tree anyway. Brazils aren’t my favorites; that would be pecans. But I do love them when I can get them. They remind me of coconut.

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    • They remind me of coconut too PT, only easier for me to swallow – which I hate because I love coconut too. And if the fact that nuts are actually seeds wasn’t particularly clear to me before, it sure as hell is now. The entire “How Nature Works” program was filled with eye opening revelations! 😀

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  2. Pingback: Nature,Tortilla Soup and Some Time for Reflection | Yolks On Us

  3. How do several different species “evolve” so the male Euglossa bees could survive. Not possible. Created is more like it. They all NEED each other to survive so how could they all randomly spontaneously grow/come into existence needing each other at the exact same time?

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    • Considering the billions of years that natural selection has been at work, discovering that such an odd symbiosis exists within the snapshot of time we are able to see isn’t as surprising as you might think. Remember that the vast majority of the species that have lived on the Earth are now extinct, with most of those extinctions coming by way of the evolutionary bottlenecks that arise from tight inter-species dependencies such as these.

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  4. I enjoyed this article, but I had to copy/paste it into a notepad to read it due to the flying snowflakes effect. I would recommend turning that off, as it is extremely distracting.

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