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Plants: Species Collection: Cycads

By the time dinosaurs ruled the world, cycads were already fairly widespread, having made their appearance in the late Paleozoic era. The prehistoric plants provided food for many of the giant plant-eaters and managed to adapt and survive through the world's drastic climate changes to become even more widespread in our era.


Today, the young leaves and seeds of a number of cycad species continue to provide food for animals, although most are poisonous for humans without processing to remove their natural alkaloids. When cooked, however, the starch from some cycad stems and seeds is not only edible but has also been an important human food source in times of famine. With 82 taxa and many mature specimens, the San Diego Zoo has one of the best cycad collections in the world, including 29 species that are conservation worthy.


As you walk from the north exit of Flamingo Caf´┐ę toward the koalas and down into Bear Canyon, take time to contemplate these prehistoric survivors, which represent each of their continents of origin: Asia, the Americas, Africa, and finally Australia.


Although many cycads resemble palms, they are actually more closely related to conifers, which becomes more obvious when they produce their cones. Unlike conifers, however, which usually have male and female cones on the same plant, cycads often have the male and female cones on separate plants. Although the male and female cones tend to look similar, the male cones contain pollen that must get to the female cones' ovules. Some cycads are wind-pollinated, but most are pollinated by insects, birds, and animals such as squirrels or coatimundis.