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The Humble Gambel Oak

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We know that when it comes to people, unassuming doesn’t mean uninteresting. The same holds true for trees.

The Gambel oak has never broken any records for height or longevity, but a little research reveals its hidden complexity.

Named after William Gambel, a 19th century plant collector, Gambel oaks live in our Wasatch foothills and all over the West. Most are shorter than 10 feet tall, with rough bark, crooked branches, and an abundance of acorns that turn from green to golden brown in the fall.

These acorns feed squirrels, magpies, wild turkeys, porcupines and black bears. The Colorado Hairstreak Butterfly, the state insect of Colorado, is entirely dependent on them for food and egg-laying sites.

And for millennia, Gambel oaks have been a critical food source for indigenous people of the Southwest. Once gathered and processed, the acorns are ground into flour to make a host of sustaining and sustainable foods.

Gambel oaks also feed our scientific curiosity. Because the trees grow in clumps, scientists have wondered if the individual trunks in each cluster might actually be a single genetic individual, like the clones of our aspen trees. Until recently, that idea was only speculation.

In 2014, Jake Chalmers, then a graduate student at the University of Utah, investigated this hypothesis. He took leaf samples from individual oak trunks growing in different clumps, and then identified their genetic makeup. Each clump had a unique separate genetic signature.

That means that a landscape that looks like its housing a whole bunch of individual trees is actually home to a much smaller number of genetic organisms. It’s sort of like discovering a friend is a triplet and that there are two other individuals who share her exact genetic make-up.

So, on your next hike in our foothills, pause and appreciate the humble Gambel Oak. Their modest appearance hides their critical values — just like those wonderful unassuming people in our lives.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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