Acorns abound right now, indicating the oak trees are in overdrive, producing potential offspring, as part of a cycle that has environmental and ecological implications, a Grand Valley botanist said.
And while this process, known as masting, produces a veritable feast for squirrels, the oak tree cycle of peaks and valleys of acorn production actually is a process for controlling acorn predators, said Tim Evans, professor of biology.
Masting typically happens every few years, though its mechanisms are still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, Evans said. And this year seems to be a particularly robust masting season, he added.
First, a reminder of what an acorn is and its function: It is a fruit, specifically a nut, sprouted from a small flower on the tree, Evans said.
"Its primary role from the plant's perspective is that it's the next generation. The tree wants as many of those acorns to sprout into new trees as possible," Evans said. "Very few acorns actually survive to grow into a tree, because their other function is as food. Most of them get eaten."
That's where the squirrels — and to be fair, other animals — come in. Squirrels, though, are undeniably the most visible predator of the oak tree's reproductive intentions.
The overabundance of acorns in a masting season means there are more acorns than predators can eat, something known as predator saturation, Evans said.
"Oaks are well known for doing this," Evans said. "The squirrels, deer, just have a feast year, but then there’s still plenty of acorns out there to sprout into the next generation of trees."
But the oak trees giveth and taketh away from the predators. A valley in the acorn production cycle also has implications for the critters, Evans said.
Without as much to eat for the animals, "That puts a check onto the population growth," he said.