Mysterious ‘masting’

Friday, 19 May, 2017 - 09:15
Dr Andrew Hacket Pain, Bye-Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Paper by Andrew Hacket-Pain in New Phytologist sheds light on why beech trees across Europe all produce huge numbers of seeds in the same year.

‘Masting’ – think beech mast – is the term describing the phenomenon of plants or trees of the same species producing huge numbers of seeds every few years in synchrony with other plants of the same species.

Fitzwilliam College Bye-Fellow Andrew Hacket-Pain has been researching the patterns and possible reasons, and a paper ‘Spatial patterns and broad-scale weather cues of beech mast seeding in Europe’ has recently been published in New Phytologist.

Andrew Hacket-Pain said: “Our data show that 2006 and 2011 were years when seed production in beech was high across northern and central Europe, the Carpathian mountains, the Alps and central Italy.”

But how and why does it happen, and what are the advantages? “We show that ‘mast years’ typically occur after a sequence of a cold summer, followed by a warm summer,” explains Andrew, a physical geographer. “We think that this climate control is probably linked to the accumulation of resources in the trees (producing large seed crops requires substantial investment of resources), and temperature effects on the plant hormones that control the production of flowers.”

As masting controls regeneration of trees, it impacts on the population dynamics of woodland birds and rodents. Andy believes that an ability to predict masting events will help improve wildlife management for these important species. Additionally, it may also have implications for human health - mast years can lead to population explosions of the host species of various diseases, including Lyme's disease.

 Photo credit: Jens Cederskjold CC BY 3.0 

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