Nature Walks Made Fun

Why Do Maple Tree Seeds Spin As They Fall?

We have all seen maple seeds twirling and spinning down to the ground as we pass beneath their trees. But, have you ever stopped to wonder how or why maple seeds spin? In this tutorial, we will find out why.

What makes a maple seed unique?

Before we explore how and why maple seeds spin, it might be nice to take a minute and think about what a maple seed is; what makes it different; and why it is unique.

A maple seed is a type of flying tree seed known as a samara. There are several different types of flying tree seeds. Some have parachutes or pappi, and some have wings.

There are several types of winged seeds too. Some are round, some are long, some are fat and some are thin. Some winged seeds have their seeds in the middle, while others have their seeds above, below or at one end.

Maple seeds are special, because, like other helicopter seeds, they have long, thin wings and have their seeds at one end of their wing.

What does a maple seed look like?

If we take a closer look at a maple seed, we will start to notice some interesting features. Pick one up and examine it closely. You should notice that one side of its wing is thicker, smoother and rounder. While the other side is thinner, rougher or jagged.

If you try to balance it on your finger, you should also notice that the heaviest part of the seed – and it’s centre of gravity, is in the middle of its seed.

This combination of wing structure and centre of gravity is what makes a maple seed spin.

How does a maple seed spin?

Now it is time to find out how a maple seed spins.

Try and watch a maple seed falling. Which way up does it fall? In which direction does it spin?

If you look carefully, you should notice that the seeds always fall with their seeds at the bottom and their wings at the top. This makes sense, since we now know their seed is their heaviest point.

And if you look even more closely, you should start to notice that maple seeds always spin in the direction of their smoother, rounder, thicker edge. But, why?

Some clever scientists have experimented to answer this very question. They decided to drop maple leaves in oil and air, while recording the air flow and movements as they fell. Their results were pretty amazing.

Maple seeds make mini tornadoes!

As each seed fell, several factors came into play – gravity, drag and turbulence.

  • Gravity acting on the heavier seed, always pulled that end downwards.
  • Drag or wind resistance on the seed as it fell through the air, had the greatest impact on its widest surface area – the membranous wing of the samara.
  • This caused the wing to be pushed upwards, making it act like a parachute and slowed the samara’s fall.
  • Finally, air flow over the surface of the samara met the rough and smooth edges of the wing. The rough edges caused lots of turbulence, while the smooth, rounded edge offered less resistance.
  • This made the air above the maple samara spin in the shape of a mini tornado – narrow end towards the seed and wide end towards the end of the wing.
  • The air flow caused by this mini, sideways tornado, makes the maple seeds spin as they fall.

Why do maple seeds spin?

So, we now know how maple seeds spin, but have you ever wondered why they need to spin? What’s the point of spinning when they could just fall straight down, instead?

Let’s recap a few maple seed facts:

  • They have wings
  • They spin as they fly
  • Their wings act as parachutes, slowing them as they fall

What does this all say about them?

It says that the maple tree has evolved to help its seeds get as far away from it as possible.

Parachutes slow them down, giving the wind a better chance at blowing them away. Wings

  • Parachutes slow them down, giving the wind a better chance at blowing them away
  • Wings act like sails, helping the seeds blow even further
  • Spinning like a helicopter helps them stay aloft even longer, helping them get even further away.

But, why?

The answer is a matter of survival and evolution. If the seeds plopped straight down beneath their trees, they would end up competing for sunlight, water and minerals. There is also a risk of cross pollination.

Those seeds that managed to get away and find their own space to grow, could grow stronger and bigger – because they are no longer in competition!

That’s all!

I hope you enjoyed today’s tutorial? If so, let us know with a comment and five stars.

Happy nature walking x

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