Into the Woods

Ron Gettinger researches American beech tree nut production cycles

Jonathan Bolton '12 and Ron Gettinger examine a beech nut that had fallen into a collector at Gettinger's study site on campus.Carefully working his way down the steep terrain, Ron Gettinger stops abruptly as a Pileated Woodpecker calls in the distance. After quizzing his students on the sound, he continues moving among the beech and other hardwood trees, checking his special beech nut collectors. The students ask questions as they examine different trees and look for signs of wildlife in the area.

In the wooded area of back campus that few see, Gettinger is in his element.

“I love being outdoors,” said the Randolph College biology professor and assistant dean of the College. “That’s really where all my training is, in field ecology.”

For two years, Gettinger has taken advantage of the woods that stretch between Randolph’s far soccer field and the James River for his research on beech trees. While the land is steep, it boasts a large American beech population, making it a perfect location for his study of the patterns of growth and nut production.

Gettinger also has study sites at Randolph’s three nature preserves, which are located off campus. “What I’m trying to see is whether the beech nut production can be correlated to weather events or if it can be attributed to an independent cycle,” he said.

Gettinger recently received Mednick Fellowship funds from the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges for his multi-year study. “I’ve always been fascinated with beech trees,” said Gettinger, who earned his undergraduate degree from Miami University of Ohio, his master’s degree from Colorado State University, and his doctorate from the University of California.

While his training is in ecology, specifically animal ecology, Gettinger also enjoys working with trees and often jokes that beech trees are much less difficult to band than birds. “They are the coolest trees in the world. They are pretty, and it turns out their thin, smooth bark makes working with the growth bands easier.”

Gettinger has tagged a total of 500 trees on his study sites, including 400 on back campus. Each year during the fall, Gettinger sets up “collectors,” fabric-covered poles that catch the beech nuts when they fall out of the trees. He then gathers the nuts and opens them to determine the percentage with viable kernels, indicating successful cross-pollination, and the percentage damaged by insects and other seed predators.

Beech nuts

Like many other nut-bearing trees, beech trees produce crops that vary tremendously from year to year.

Sometimes a small crop can be attributed to a late frost, which Gettinger speculates is the case this year. Those crops, or the lack thereof, have an immediate impact on the wildlife species that depend on them for food.

Gettinger’s research centers on the impact of the trees’ production cycles. Long-term research on specific populations of trees will allow Gettinger to address a number of questions: What is the benefit of a large crop of nuts if that just means that there are more nuts available to predators? Is there a benefit to a smaller crop in some years? Do trees invest more energy into growth in years when they produce fewer nuts, thus enhancing the potential for future nut production?

The research has prompted other projects, including box turtle tracking and the study of chestnut oak tree germination. Gettinger is also monitoring and comparing the seasonal growth of the beech trees using metal bands, called dendrometers, that wrap around the trees.

“I’ve been interested for a long time in the whole idea of masting behavior,” Gettinger said. “You don’t think of trees as having a behavior, but they do, and many of the trees in communities seem to produce their big nut crops at the same time. I thought, what’s going on? Is this some kind of evolved response that enhances the reproductive potential of the trees?”

Part of his research includes studying whether the new beech trees that are growing in his study sites are formed from sexual reproduction or if they are clones of the parent trees and grew from the roots. This difference is important due to the number of disappearing or shrinking forests. Fewer beech trees means less nut production. Smaller nut productions means new growth will depend increasingly on root sprouts.

“It’s healthier as a rule to have a diverse parentage among the trees,” Gettinger said. “They are more susceptible to disease otherwise.”

The large population of American beech trees on Randolph’s property allows Gettinger to do his research while sharing his love of science and the outdoors with his students.

“The biology department has used the area for years for ecology,” he said. “It is pretty unusual for a college that is surrounded by residential areas as we are to have any woodland at all. It’s nice for us. We don’t have to load up the van and drive somewhere. We can just take a 10-minute hike across the soccer fields. These are true outdoor labs.”