Are Coconuts Mammals? The Confusing Truth

Written by Dana Mayor
Updated: September 25, 2022
Image Credit Thasneem/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • Coconuts belong to Order Arecales and Class Arecaceae.
  •  Mice, elephants, and primates however belong to Class Mammalia.
  • Although coconuts can produce milk and are covered in hair, they are still markedly different from mammals.

The coconut has one of the most unique and versatile flavors you’ll find in fruit, but it also has a surprising amount in common with humans and our mammalian counterparts. It’s common knowledge that growing hair or fur and being able to produce milk are some of the most common traits shared by mammals — and coconuts are also known for their hairy exterior and the delicious milk they produce. But does that make them mammals? Here’s everything you need to know about whether or not coconuts are mammals — and everything you need to know about where they fit in the larger system of biological taxonomy.

The Case For Coconuts as Mammals

Coconut milk
A bottle with fresh coconut milk for skincare, with a fresh coconut. Coconut milk is processed using the meat inside of coconuts, whereas milk from mammals is produced from the mammary gland.

nadisja/Shutterstock.com

The notion that coconuts are the same as mammals is predicated on a concept known as morphology — or the notion that animals can be biologically grouped together based on the fact that they share the same structural qualities. And in morphological terms, there’s a decent surface-level argument that coconuts are mammals. There are a lot of different characteristics that are common in most mammals, but there are only three that persistent among every member of the species. These are:

  • The capacity to produce milk
  • The presence of hair or fur
  • Ears composed of three bones

Coconuts initially seem to meet two of these criteria. Coconut milk has been a dietary staple throughout Oceania, East Africa, and parts of Asia for years — and it’s become a popular grocery store item throughout the world in the past few decades. And just like more traditional milk, coconut milk has an opaque white coloring and a high concentration of nutrients and vitamins. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Coconut milk is processed using the meat inside of coconuts, whereas milk from mammals is produced from the mammary gland. In other words, the designation of coconut milk has more to do with marketing than with any biological or taxonomic meaning.

The other trait that coconuts and mammals both have in common is the fact that they grow hair or fur. In mammals, fur serves as a method to insulate their bodies against the cold, although many animals have designed specialized secondary purposes for the fur — as is the case with cats developing whiskers as sensory organs or the seasonally changing camouflaged of a snowshoe hare’s fur. Even mammals that initially wouldn’t seem to have fur — such as whales and naked mole rats — possess it in small quantities.

At first blush, the hairy exterior of coconuts would appear similar to the furry surface of mammals, but looks can be deceiving. Instead, the fibers of coconuts are the outer layers of the husk, and the husk serves as a hard carapace protecting the nut inside. That allows the coconut to fall from their tree and resist attacks from animals while the seed inside has a chance to germinate.

The Case Against Coconuts as Mammals

The case for coconuts to be considered as mammals is already tenuous, but underlining the dubious nature of using the terms milk and hair to define traits of coconuts only dances around the issue of why coconuts aren’t mammals. Because while finding morphological similarities can help us understand how different organisms are related to one another, the ultimate goal of taxonomy is to create a clear and hierarchical way of determining the branches of evolutionary history. Organisms that are considered mammals are considered so not because they possess a certain set of characteristics, but because they share a common ancestor with those qualities.

While you will find common ancestors between coconuts and mammals, it happens far further back in the evolutionary tree. Milk, as defined for the purpose of classifying mammals, is developed in the mammary gland. The density and nutritional content of milk can vary wildly from one species of mammal to another, but they’re all derived from the same gland that first appeared in a shared ancestor. Recent research even suggests that mammary glands evolved from the same source as hair follicles. Today, they remain necessarily defining features of mammalian ancestry.

Coconut tree
A single Coconut Palm Tree on white Sand with the Caribbean Sea. The coconut has one of the most unique and versatile flavors you’ll find in fruit, but it also has a surprising amount in common with humans and our mammalian counterparts.

Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock.com

Where Coconuts Fit in the Taxonomy

But if coconuts don’t share a recent enough ancestor to be classified as mammals, how closely are they related? And how did they manage to develop similar traits despite having such distant ancestry? We can figure that out by working our way up through the taxonomy.

  • Mammals are members of Class Mammalia and are distinguished by their presence of hair follicles, mammary glands, and the distinct design of their nose bones.
  • Class Mammalia belongs to Phylum Chordate. Not all chordates have a spinal column, they all develop at some point in their life four physiological structures that serve as the origin for the backbone and the central nervous system. Reptiles, birds, fish, and amphibians all share this phylum with mammals.
  • The second highest classification in taxonomy is the kingdom. Mammals belong to Kingdom Animalia, which is comprised mostly of organisms that reproduce sexually and are usually mobile. Most members of this kingdom also ingest external sources for nutrients. The other five kingdoms account for plants, fungi, and three types of microscopic organisms.
  • You have to extend all the way to the top of the taxonomy to find a shared ancestor between mammals and coconuts. As members of Domain Archaea, coconuts and mammals are both prokaryotes. The main characteristic they have in common is that their cells don’t have nuclei — but that also allows for rapid evolution, and thus rapid differentiation.
  • Fundamental differences in cellular structure from mammals differentiate coconuts into Kingdom Plantae. Thanks to a lack of cellular walls and evolutionary outcomes of that trait, plants can derive their nutrition from the passive consumption of sunlight, oxygen, and water. That allows plants like coconut trees — of which the coconut is merely a seed — to remain largely mobile.
  • Coconut trees belong to Order Arecales, which cover a narrow variety of flowering plants. Most varieties of flowering trees belong in this order. That means that coconuts themselves are both flowers and seeds.
  • Bringing things back to where we began, the coconut tree falls into Class Arecaceae, which by modern definitions is the only existing class that falls under the purview of Order Arecales. That puts coconut trees in the company of palm trees — certainly a far cry from the apes, elephants, and mice that belong to Class Mammalia.

The Conclusion: Are Coconuts Mammals

Officially and unequivocally, coconuts are not considered mammals. While they do share some interesting characteristics with mammals, coconuts are considered fruit – not mammals.

Up Next…

Keep reading these posts for more incredible information about key animal facts.

  • The 10 Largest Citrus Fruits: Always fragrant, often refreshing, they’re a permanent fixture at kitchen tables around the world. We examine the largest of these wondrous fruits.

Are coconuts mammals
Are coconuts mammals
Thasneem/Shutterstock.com
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About the Author

I love good books and the occasional cartoon. I am also endlessly intrigued with the beauty of nature and find hummingbirds, puppies, and marine wildlife to be the most magical creatures of all.

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