Something Wild: Erratic Cycles
NHPR is celebrating 25 years of Something Wild by playing some of our favorite shows from the archives. You'll want to listen to this show, produced by Emily Quirk in 2019.
Autumn in New Hampshire is a wonderful time to watch and observe some easily recognizable stages of natural cycles: hawks migrating, leaves changing color, bears fattening up as they get ready to hibernate.
But while we tend to think of cycles as a circular, repeatable pattern unfolding year after year, we should note that there are varying degrees of “cyclical” activity that can be quite complicated.
The main reason for this?
Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.
Nature is filled entropy or randomness. Political historian Henry Adams once said, “Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.”
Take for example, the erratic cycles of both the majestic monarch butterfly and the humble acorn.
You might have noticed an abundance of monarch butterflies in your garden these past few weeks and many more acorns underfoot. Both are emblematic of the dramatic variations in population numbers and population dynamics, and both are complicated by a lot of factors.
Precipitation, predation, reproductive potential, what happened last year— all kinds of things affect population booms and busts.
The monarchs that are passing through our back yards and meadows are on a 2,400 mile journey to Mexico to roost for the winter, where last year’s populations exploded more than 144% over the previous.
There’s no way to know for certain what caused the monarch population explosion, but it could be because of increased conservation efforts, both here in the states and in Mexico.
So does this apparent jump in monarchs mean that next year we’ll see even more?
Maybe so, maybe not.
Remember chaos? There could be a hurricane that barrels through the monarch’s complex migration path, wiping out a generation and causing a massive disruption in their reproductive potential.
But now let’s talk about acorns.
They seem to be bouncing back just like the monarch populations. But unlike the monarchs, oak trees don’t migrate, and they operate under vastly different systems.
Acorns were a bust cycle last year, remember? And their relative scarcity had a major impact on rodents in the region. There’s no way to know for sure what caused the sudden acorn shut down, but scientists believe oak trees have evolved to cut off their acorn production for the purpose of reducing rodent population that feed on their seeds, effectively starving them out.
More acorns this year, combined with reduced rodent populations, means more acorns maturing into oak tree samplings.
Eventually though, oak trees will decide to go on strike again and shut down their production of acorns. As to when this will happen? We haven’t the foggiest idea. Like monarch populations, oak tree crop cycles are unpredictable and easily affected by many factors as we mentioned earlier: precipitation, predation and chaos.