Cereal Box Arms Race

Cereal boxes, much like the competing trees in a tropical rain forest, need radiation to survive. For trees this radiation comes from the sun. For cereal boxes, you provide the attention radiation that illuminates and nourishes them. This so-called “att-rad” can lead to the next stage of the cereal box life cycle, grocery cartosis, in which harvested goods are placed in the cart and transported out of the store. Cartosis is followed by deposition in the kitchen cabinet reticulum for storage, and ultimately consumption by the human host. Competition for att-rad is, therefore, a deadly serious business, and much studied by consumer ecologists at organizations such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Frostie-Krunch Consolidated Heavy Carbohydrates, Inc.

One especially valuable and selected-for trait in the cereal aisle canopy is box height. Here we see the mighty Special-K box towering over a nearby companion. The monster in this picture was measured at close to 340 millimeters! On the shelves of the cereal forest, that diverse and superheated environment where boxes are harvested, this trait serves it well. Taller boxes appear to attract more of the precious and life-bestowing attention radiation from potential human hosts.

But beware! All phenotypes have maladaptive tradeoffs. The tall trees of the rain forest must cope with the hazard of being so tall that they pitch over in the wind. And this noble Special K box now finds itself in the awkward position of being poorly adapted for storage in the cabinet reticulum of the host’s kitchen-plasm. It’s too tall for its new home! To circumvent this problem, the fruit of the Special K box has been grafted onto a sturdy wild-type Chex box, as close inspection of this image will reveal. The Crispix fruit has suffered a similar fate. This cross-grafting can be an irritant to the human host.

Ultimately, box height comes at a steep ecological price. Here we see the remains of the box exoskeleton cast off into the recycling compost of the kitchen floor. All the energy that went into the box will now be passed to that ravenous detrivore, the recycling bin (Receptaclus cardboardi). Box height is energetically expensive, and it can irritate the human host, who must prematurely shuck and discard this extravagant cereal integument and then graft the fruit to a surrogate species. All to chase the fickle attention radiation that beams daily from your eyes. Is it worth it? Is this a stable and successful reproductive strategy? Evolutionary time will tell.