What defines mast seeding? Spatio-temporal patterns of cone production by whitebark pine


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1. Synchronous, episodic mast seeding is common in plant populations, and is thought to increase plant fitness through economies of scale, such as satiating seed predators, attracting seed dispersers and enhancing pollination success. Although mast seeding is easy to conceptualize, it has been quantified using a number of different metrics that reflect different features of pulsed reproduction.

2. We quantified spatio-temporal patterns of mast seeding across 36 populations of a high-elevation tree, Pinus albicaulis, for which perceived declines in cone production are a conservation concern. We tested for trends in mean cone production through space and time, and documented patterns of mast seeding using six different metrics: coefficient of variation, lag-1 autocorrelation, synchrony, average cone production by individual trees, and the frequency of high cone crops on absolute and relative scales.

3. Overall, we did not detect increasing or decreasing trends in cone production during our study period. Average cone production tended to increase from north-east to south-west. Population-level cone production tended to alternate between high and low years, but overall the coefficient of variation was low for a mast seeding species.

4. Metrics of mast seeding were not concordant across populations. The first principal component describing mast metrics separated populations with frequent high cone crops from those with high coefficients of variation. However, the second principle component was at least somewhat correlated with all metrics of masting, suggesting some ability to separate ‘masting’ from ‘non-masting’ populations.

5. In P. albicaulis, spatial variation in mast seeding could reflect differences in site productivity, differences in the importance of satiating generalist seed consumers versus attracting specialist seed dispersers, or recent invasion by an introduced pathogen.

6.Synthesis. Our research reinforces the conclusion that populations form a continuum of strategies between ‘masting’ versus ‘non-masting’ extremes. However, because different features of masting do not covary in space, understanding where populations fall along this continuum will depend on the features that are most important for mast seeding in a particular context.