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Home - Use - Prickly Pear Cactus - Natural history

Nopales

Historia natural del nopal

The prickly pearpricky pearl field is a xerophylic shrubland (dominated by Cactaceae) where different species of prickly pear dominate and vary in structure and composition depending on the humidity, temperature, substrate and the use to which they are subjected; prickly pear fields are biological communities with a great diversity of microhabitats that provide food and shelter for mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and insects.  

The main pollinators of the Opuntia flowers are the bees and beetles, and their coevolution with at least two kinds of bees (Lithurge and Diadasia) is suggested. The fruits are closely related to seed dispersal by animals.


Adaptations
The prickly pear is native to various environments; from sea level to elevations of over 4,000 m in the mountains; from Mexico's tropical regions where temperatures are always above 5 °C, to regions in Canada reaching -40 °C in the winter. A key feature of the prickly pear is its succulence, which is manifested in several ways: on a morphological level by the thick cladophylls, and at the anatomical level by various layers of water-storing cells.

In the arid and semiarid regions of Mexico, various factors limit the growth of plants; water is the main limiting factor, but there are other features such as strong winds, sudden temperature changes, soil nutrient deficiency and the presence of salts and toxic substances. The evolution of the prickly pear in this environment has led to different species of the genus Opuntia developing morphological, physiological and biochemical characteristics that allow them to adapt to such adverse conditions. A significant change is the transformation of the leaves to spines, which helps to prevent water loss.

Unlike most plants, the prickly pear absorbs the carbon dioxide necessary for metabolism at night thus preventing water loss. This mechanism has allowed them to colonize arid environments. However, their wide distribution is mainly due to the ease with which they propagate. This can be by fragmentation - a pad falling to the ground; the areolas producing roots and initiating a new plant; or by seed, which is less frequent but results in more vigorous and genetically distinct plants.

 
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