04 November 2011

It was a very mast year

Last year the red oaks in our forest produced a bumper crop of acorns. The trails were littered with acorns and you would often get bonked on the head by one as you walked. Bluejays were plentiful and spent their days arguing and tapping acorns against tree branches. It made for an interesting soundtrack to the late summer and early fall. These years of abundance are called mast years and they are a pretty interesting phenomenon with a cascading effect on the ecosystem.

No one has yet been able to predict which years will be mast years for a given species. The theory is that normal years provide just enough food for a smallish population of animals to survive. In a mast year, such an overabundance of food is available that lots of acorns are left to germinate and grow up. Of course, the quantity of food available also results in larger populations of deer, squirrels, and mice, which have their own impacts. For example, all those extra mice are hard on ground nesting birds and also on gypsy moths, but good for owls and other predators. Life isn't easy, though, and the charitable oaks revert to their stingy ways the next year. No one seems quite sure what triggers all the trees to participate in the mast, as by doing so, they have to allot resources which would otherwise be used for growth.

One of the visible reminders of last year's amazing acorn production is the large number of red oak seedlings scattered throughout the woods. Now that everything is brown and bare, the bright red leaves of the tiny red oaks stand out like little beacons.

A great article on the subject was published in American Scientist magazine in 2005.


  1. I have always wondered about mast lifetimes. Don't you think cheap oil has fueled quite literally life as we know it? It does make you think.

    And I grew up under oak trees. I didn't like mast years!

  2. Without thinking about it too much, and with memories of a few mast years in my head, many years I've wondered where all the acorns were. It's taken me a good portion of my life to figure out that the years of surplus were the exception.

  3. That was a fascinating article. We have various trees such as cedar, hemlock, fir, maple and so forth and the interesting factor they all have in common this year is no pinecones or seed pods. In that article it stated that "cold, dry years would result in less photosynthesis and lower nutrient availability, resulting in meagerseed crops", while our spring started out wet we ended up with a very dry summer and cold nighttime temperatures. So no doubt this had an effect on seed production...not only in the trees but it was an issue I had with various plants that I tried to save seed off of in the garden as well.



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