Why are there so many acorns this year? Do they foretell a harsh winter?
Like many trees, oaks have irregular cycles of boom and bust. Boom times, called “mast years,” occur every 2-5 years, with smaller acorn crops in between. But the why and how of these cycles are still a mystery.
Scientific research can tell us what a mast year is not. A mast year is not a predictor of a severe winter. Unfortunately, plants and animals are no better at predicting the future than we are.
Strangely, mast years are not simply resource-driven. Sure, a wet, cool spring can affect pollination and a hot, dry summer can affect acorn maturation. But annual rainfall and temperature fluctuations are much smaller in magnitude than acorn crop sizes. In other words, weather variables cannot account for the excessive nutty production of acorns in a mast year.
So what does trigger a mast year? Scientists have proposed a range of explanations—from environmental triggers to chemical signaling to pollen availability—but our understanding is not clear. The fact is, we simply don’t know yet.
Boom and bust cycles of acorn production do have an evolutionary benefit for oak trees through “predator satiation.” The idea goes like this: in a mast year, predators (chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys, blue jays, deer, bear, etc.) can’t eat all the acorns, so they leave some nuts to grow into future oak trees. Years of lean acorn production keep predator populations low, so there are fewer animals to eat all the seeds in a mast year. Ultimately, a higher proportion of nuts overall escape the jaws of hungry animals.
Whatever the reasons and mechanisms behind acorn cycles, mast years do have ecological consequences for years to come. More acorns, for example, may mean more deer and mice. Unfortunately, more deer and mice may mean more ticks and consequently more Lyme disease.
Many animals depend upon the highly nutritious acorn for survival. Oak trees, meanwhile, depend upon boom and bust cycles, and a few uneaten acorns, for theirs.
Amazing Acorn Facts
- There are about 90 species of oak in North America. All oaks produce acorns.
- Acorns belonging to trees in the red oak group take two growing seasons to mature; acorns in the white oak group mature in one season.
- Oak trees have greenish, inconspicuous female flowers and are wind pollinated.
- Oak trees of North America annually produce more nuts than all the region’s other nut trees together, wild and cultivated.
- One huge oak can drop up to 10,000 acorns in a mast year!
- Masting takes a lot of energy! Oak trees grow slowly in a mast year and grow well the year after.
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- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service