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If you have oak trees in your neighborhood, perhaps you've noticed that some years the ground is carpeted with their acorns, and some years there are hardly any. Biologists call this pattern, in which all the oak trees for miles around make either lots of acorns or almost none, "masting."
In New England, naturalists have declared this fall a mast year for oaks: All the trees are making tons of acorns all at the same time.
Types - Trees - Species - Pines - Hickories
Many other types of trees, from familiar North American species such as pines and hickories to the massive dipterocarps of Southeast Asian rainforests, show similar synchronization in seed production. But why and how do trees do it?
Every seed contains a packet of energy-rich starch to feed the baby tree that lies dormant inside. This makes them a tasty prize for all sorts of animals, from beetles to squirrels to wild boar.
Trees - Seed - Production - Animals - Seeds
If trees coordinate their seed production, these seed-eating animals are likely to get full long before they eat all the seeds produced in a mast year, leaving the rest to sprout.
For trees like oaks that depend on having their seeds carried away from the parent tree and buried by animals like squirrels, a mast year has an extra benefit. When there are lots of nuts, squirrels bury more of them instead of eating them immediately, spreading oaks across the landscape.
Something - Mystery - Trees - Seed - Production
It's still something of a mystery how trees synchronize their seed production to get these benefits, but several elements seem to be important.
First, producing a big crop of seeds takes a lot of energy. Trees make their food through photosynthesis: using energy from the Sun to turn carbon dioxide into sugars and starch. There's only so many resources to go around, though. Once trees make a big batch of seeds, they may need to switch back to...
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