Field of Science

Over enthusiastic reproduction

2015 has been a very good spring for the silver maples, which though rather ungainly and unattractive trees are quite common in our urban areas. Saying it was a good year only means the trees set an unusual abundance of fruit and seed. In places the samaras accumulated to more than an inch thick and our entire gardens were liberally sown with seeds from neighbors' large tree not that they were in any way at fault or could do anything about it. Now they are germinating everywhere! Even potted plants have a crop of maple trees coming up.  Now when you think of this biologically, you get some idea about the odds of a single seed maturing into a forest tree and reproducing itself. Now deciduous trees like this can have reproductive lives measured in decades, yet in nature for a population to maintain itself exactly one offspring must on average survive and reach reproductive age. Just one! So what about all those seeds? Why such an overabundance of reproduction? First, the vast majority of such seeds are predated, consumed at this tender, energy rich, helpless stage. There are a lot of chubby squirrels around right now. Two, under some set of circumstances, a lot of offspring may get "lucky", so trees make lots of babies just in case. Three, it's a tough world out there, The odds of any single seed surviving and reproducing are really low, but the lottery is going to take place each year over decades. Woody perennials play for a win in the long-haul. Around here in our tamed ecosystems gardeners pull up the seedlings by the dozens, or they fall into lawns, or onto streets, or into gutters, something nature did not intend and if we didn't keep destroying all these baby trees our properties would pretty quickly become a forest of sorts. Yes, around here the climax community could be a tall grass prairie, but it takes fire to maintain the grassland and we don't like having fires around our houses so the woody plants would win. And win they will unless the Phactors remain vigilant about weeding.

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