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Maple Trees Can Change Sex From Year To Year, Study Finds

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Less than 10 percent of plant species have separate male and female sexes. In striped maple trees, researchers found that over half changed sexes over the course of four years.   ( Jennifer Blake-Mahmud | Rutgers University )

Less than 10 percent of flowering plant species have separate male and female sexes, as the other 90 percent combine both sexes in one plant. As for the striped maple tree, researchers found that it’s not as simple as being male or female.

Sex Change In Trees

Typically, the labels for male and female sexes are applied to animals, but plants tend to have those distinctions as well. For less than 10 percent of the plant world, males and females are separate plants, and the striped maple tree is a part of that small percentage. However, researchers of a recent study found that the case is a little more complicated than just being male or female.

Evidently, striped maple trees can change sexes from year to year, meaning that they can be male in one year and then switch to being female in the next. Over a period of four years, researchers found that 54 percent of striped maple trees switched sexes at least twice, with the males often outnumbering the females.

Females More Likely To Die

Unfortunately, researchers also found that the male trees tend to grow more while the female trees are likelier to be unhealthy and eventually die. As a matter of fact, since the study began in 2014, researchers observed that 75 percent of the trees that died were female.

The unhealthiness of the trees could be a result of insects feeding on them, deer using them as antler rubs, droughts, or when larger trees fall on them during storms. This is problematic because it is the female trees that make seeds, so this trend of high female death rate could result in an overall decrease of striped maple tree population.

In future studies, researchers hope to see whether environmental factors can determine a tree’s sex or if one can trigger a sex change in the trees by injuring it or perhaps cutting a branch off.

Striped Maple Trees

Striped maple trees are slow-growing trees that grow beneath the forest canopy and can reach up to 30 to 50 feet. It is a tree that is native to New Jersey but also thrives in other medium to high elevations. It is one of the tree species with the rare ability to change sexes, along with Jack-in-the-pulpit, which is a tree that also flowers in New Jersey at the coming of springtime.

The study is published in the Annals of Botany.

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