The Serotinous Cones of Lodgepole Pine

Behind the scales of a pine cone lie the seeds that promise future generations of pine trees. Even though the seeds are not housed within fruits as they are in angiosperms (i.e. flowering plants), the tough scales of pine cones help protect the developing seeds and keep them secure until the time comes for dispersal. In some species, scales open on their own as the cone matures, at which point winged seeds fall from the tree, taking flight towards their new homes. In other species, the scales must be pried open by an animal in order to free the seed. A third group of species have what are called serotinous cones, the scales of which are sealed shut with resin. High temperatures are required to soften the resin and expose the seeds.

Serotinous cones are a common trait of pine species located in regions where wildfire naturally and regularly occurs. One such species is lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), which is found in abundance in forests across much of western North America. Lodgepole pine is a thin-barked tree species that burns easily and is often one of the first plants to recolonize after a stand-replacing wildfire. There are 3 or 4 subspecies of lodgepole pine. The one with the largest distribution and the one that most commonly exhibits serotinous cones is P. contorta subsp. latifolia, which occurs throughout the Rocky Mountains, north into the Yukon, and just west of the Cascade Range.

needles of lodgpole pine (Pinus contorta)

Lodgepole pine grows tall and straight, generally maxing out at around 80 feet tall. Its needles are about two and a half inches long, are borne in bundles of two, and tend to twist away from each other, which is one explanation for the specific epithet, contorta. Its cones are egg-shaped with asymmetrical bases, measuring less than two inches long with prickly tips at the ends of each scale. The seeds of lodgepole pine are tiny with little, papery wings that aid in dispersal. The cones can remain attached to the tree for 15-20 years (sometimes much longer), and the seeds remain viable for decades. In non-serotinous cones, the scales start opening on their own in early autumn. Serotinous cones require temperatures of 45-50°C (113-122°F), to release the resin bond between the scales. Some cones that happen to fall from the tree can open when exposed to particularly warm temperatures on the ground. Otherwise, it takes fire to free the seeds.

Serotinous cones aren’t a guarantee, and the percentage of trees with serotinous cones compared to those with non-serotinous cones varies widely across the range of lodgepole pine, both in space and in time. One reason for this is that trees with serotinous cones don’t develop them until they reach a certain age, generally around 20-30 years old, or perhaps as old as 50 or 60. The cones of young trees are all non-serotinous. But some trees never develop serotinous cones at all. Serotiny is a genetic trait, and there are various factors that either select for or against it. A number of factors are at play simultaneously over the life of a tree and across a population of trees, so it is difficult to determine exactly why the percentage of serotinous cones is so variable across the range of the species. What follows are a few potential explanations for this phenomenon.

closed cone of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)

As a fire-adapted, pioneer species, lodgepole pine has evolved to live in environments where fire is predictably common. Serotinous cones help ensure that a population won’t be wiped out when a massive wildfire comes through. After the fire has passed and the seeds are released, lodgepole pine can quickly repopulate the barren ground. As long as fire occurs within the lifespan of a population of similarly aged trees, it is advantageous for the majority of individuals to maintain their serotinous trait. If the population is located in an area that historically does not see much fire, serotinous cones may be a disadvantage and can have adverse effects on the longevity of that population.

A study published in Ecology in 2003 looked at the influence that the frequency of fire has on lodgepole pine stands found at low and high elevations in Yellowstone National Park. At lower elevations, where summer temperatures are warmer and precipitation is relatively minimal, fires occur more frequently compared to higher elevations, which tend to be cooler and wetter. The researchers found that at lower elevations when fires occurred at short intervals (less than 100 years between each fire), lodgepole pine was slower to repopulate compared to longer intervals. This suggests that the percentage of serotiny found in stands that experienced short fire intervals was low, and that stands with long fire intervals exhibit a higher percentage of serotiny. After all, as mentioned above, lodgepole pines don’t start developing serotinous cones until later in life.

At higher elevations, where fire occurs less frequently, lodgepole pines were found to have a low percentage of serotinous cones regardless of the age of the stand. Because the trees at high elevations are more likely to die of old age rather than fire, maintaining serotinous cones would be a disadvantage. Open cones are preferred. Thus, at least in this study, a greater percentage of serotinous cones was found in lodgepole pines at lower elevations compared to those at higher elevations. Latitude, elevation, mountain pine beetle attacks, and other environmental factors have all been used to explain differences in serotiny. However, the factor that seems to have the greatest influence is the frequency of fire. As James Lotan writes in a 1976 report: “A high degree of cone serotiny would be expected where repeated, high-intensity fires occur. Where forest canopies are disrupted by factors other than fire, open cones annually supply [seed] for restocking disturbances such as windfalls.”

That being said, one other factor does appear to play a critical role in whether or not lodgepole pines produce serotinous cones, and that is seed predation by squirrels. In a paper published in Ecology in 2004, researchers wondered why the percentage of serotinous cones wasn’t even higher in populations where fire reliably occurred during the lifetime of the stand. To help answer this question they looked at the activities of pine squirrels, which are the main seed predator of lodgepole pine seeds. Pine squirrels visit the canopy of lodgepole pines and consume the seeds found in serotinous cones. Because non-serotinous cones quickly shed their seeds, serotinous cones are a more reliable and accessible food source, and because pine squirrels are so effective at harvesting the seeds of serotinous cones, the researchers concluded that, “in the presence of pine squirrels, the frequency of serotiny is lower and more variable, presumably reflecting,” among a variety of other factors, “the strength of selection exerted by pine squirrels.”

A study published in PNAS in 2014 added evidence to this conclusion. While acknowledging that fire plays a major role in the frequency of serotinous cones, the researchers asserted that “squirrels select against serotiny and that the strength of selection increases with increasing squirrel density.” However, despite making it easier for squirrels to access their seeds, lodgepole pines maintain a degree of serotinous cones, since clearly their main advantage is retaining a canopy-level seed bank from which seeds are released after a fire and by which a new generation of lodgepole pines is born.

open cones of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)

Further Reading and Viewing:

To Fruit or Not to Fruit – The Story of Mast Seeding

Perennial plants that are able to reproduce multiple times during their lifetime don’t always yield the same amount of seeds each time they reproduce. For some of these plants, there is a stark difference between high-yield years and low-yield years, with low-yield years outnumbering the occasional high-yield years. In years when yields are high, fruit production can seem excessive. This phenomenon is called masting, or mast seeding, and it takes place at the population level. That is, during a mast year, virtually all individuals in a population of a certain species synchronously produce a bumper crop of seeds.

Plants of many types can be masting species. Bitterroot milkvetch (Astragalus scaphoides) and a tussock grass known as Chionochloa pallens are masting species, for example. However, this behavior is most commonly observed in trees, notably nut producing trees like oaks, beeches, and pecans. As you might imagine, the boom and bust cycles of mast seeding plant populations can have dramatic ecological effects. Animals that eat acorns, for example, are greeted with a veritable buffet in a mast year, which can increase their rate of reproduction for a spell. Then, in years when acorns are scarce, the populations of those animals can plummet.

How and why masting happens is not well understood. It is particularly baffling because masting populations can cover considerably large geographic areas. How do trees covering several square miles all “know” that this is the year to really go for it? While a number of possible explanations have been explored, there is still much to learn, especially since so many different species growing in such varied environments exhibit this behavior.

A popular explanation for mast seeding is predator satiation. The fruits and seeds of plants are important food sources for many animals. When a population of plants produces fruit in an unusually high abundance, its predators won’t possibly be able to eat them all. At least a few seeds will be left behind and can sprout and grow into new plants. By satiating their predators they help ensure the survival of future generations. However, even if a plant species has evolved to behave this way, it still doesn’t explain how all the plants in a particular population seem to know when it’s time for another mast year.

Predator satiation is an example of an economy of scale, which essentially means that individual plants benefit when the population acts as a whole. Another economy of scale that helps explain masting is pollen coupling. This has to do with the timing of flowering in cross pollinating species. If individuals flower out of sync with one another, the opportunities for cross pollination are limited. However, if individuals in a population flower simultaneously, more flowers will be pollinated which leads to increased fruit and seed production.  For this to happen, there are at least two factors that come into play. First, the plants have to have enough resources to flower. Making flowers is expensive, and if the resources to do so (like carbon, nitrogen, and water) aren’t available, it won’t happen. Second, weather conditions have to work in their favor. Timing of flowering depends, not only on daylength, but on temperature, rainfall, and other local weather conditions. If individuals across a population aren’t experiencing similar weather, the timing of their flowering may be off.

pollen-producing (male) flowers of pecan (Carya illinoinensis) — via wikimedia commons; Clemson University

Resource matching and resource budgeting are other proposed explanations for masting. Since plants can only use the resources available to them for things like growth and reproduction, they vary each year in how much growing or reproducing they do. Theoretically, if plants in a population are all going to flower in the same year, they all have to have access to a similar amount of resources. Often, the year following a mast year, there is a significant drop in fruit production, as though the plants have used up all of their available resources for reproduction and are taking a break. Some hypothesize that masting is a result of resource storage, and that plants save up resources for several years until they have what they need for yet another big year.

Another thing to consider is how plant hormones might play a role in masting. Gene expression and environmental cues both result in hormonal responses in plants. As Bogdziewicz, et al. write in Ecology Letters (2020), “if hormones and the genes that control them are hypersensitive to an environmental signal, masting can be at least partially independent of resource- and pollen-based mechanisms.” This and other potential explanations for masting are, at this point, largely theoretical. In their paper, Bogdziewicz, et al. propose a number of ways that theoretical predictions can be experimentally tested. If the “research agenda” outlined in their paper is carried out, they believe it will “take the biology of masting from a largely observational field of ecology to one rooted in mechanistic understanding.”

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer proposes an additional explanation for the mechanisms behind masting – the trees are talking to one another. Not in the way that you and I might converse, but rather by sending signals through the air via pheromones and underground via complex fungal networks. There is already evidence for this behavior when it comes to plants defending themselves from predators and in sharing resources, so why not in planning when to reproduce? As Kimmerer writes regarding masting, “the trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.” The question now is how.

seedlings of European beech (Fagus sylvatica), a mast-seeding species — via wikimedia commons; user: Beentree

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