Samara (Helicopter Seeds)

I conducted this project as part of Professor Pringle’s EEB321 class at Princeton University.

This is a photo of part of a samara, the winged seeds produced by maple trees. They are also commonly known as “helicopter seeds”, “whirlers”, or “twisters.” Before this, I did not know much about them besides that they were EVERYWHERE in the fall and I used to love playing with them as a child because they made interesting designs through the air as they fell to the ground. Now I know that they have wings so that when they fall, the wind would carry them further away from the parent tree so that they are not competing with each other and with the parent tree for food, water, and sunlight.

I took helicopter seeds from the grassy area under a maple tree outside of McCosh Hall on Princeton’s campus. I found intact ones which had dried to a brown color with almost translucent wings that still had visible designs on them. I was interested at looking more closely at the design of the wings. Are they like grasshopper wings which are in a netted design with square borders and translucent middles? Wings must be made strong enough to not break, but light enough to watch the wind. Do the wings of a helicopter seed have the same design as wings on insects? What makes for a “good” wing?

I was surprised by what I saw under the foldscope. I took a coverslip sticker and stuck it on part of the wing before peeling the sticker off and removing the top layering of wing. I found squiggly designs that looked almost like worms, and at other parts of the sample, there were more densely packed areas with undefined borders and different shades. I had expected a more distinctive design, but found that on the microscopic level, there are different designs throughout the wing. This may be because I was looking at a certain portion of the wing or because I had collected the sample through what had stuck to the coverslip sticker and was not looking at the entire wing. I do think, however, that helicopter wings have different designs than insect wings, where helicopter wings may be more veiny, like leaves, more than they are like insect wings. There may not be just one definition of a “good” wing, as there are many ways nature produces wings,

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