Secondary Succession


Secondary succession refers to the sequential changes in vegetation that occur after a disturbance such as wildfires, hurricanes or human alterations. The rate of change in secondary succession is faster than in primary successions. The studies at different scales on the phenomena studied to understand succession has produced contrasting theories on the succession process. Arguments as to whether succession features competition among plants or some sort of positive process where the presence of one species reinforces the subsequent occurrence of another species at the site have produced considerable argument among ecologists. Ecological models that reproduce successional patterns provide insight into this issue as well as in the nature of successional outcomes. Restoration ecology represents a significant application of succession theory.

Key Concepts:

  • Secondary successions are the changes in vegetation that occur after agricultural abandonment or the disturbance of an existing ecosystem. They can be contrasted with primary successions that occur on new substrates.

  • The concept of succession has a long history in ecology and is a central concept in understanding the dynamics of ecosystems.

  • There have been and continue to be considerable debate about the nature of succession. The time and space scales considered in ecological succession studies have a pronounced effect on the processes and resultant patterns identified in the studies.

  • The concept of secondary succession and how it functions is essential a systems theory application in ecology.

  • Models of ecological succession have developed to investigate the roles of individual species and even of individual plants on determining the patterns of successional change.

  • Complex nonlinear responses in ecosystems components and the environment can produce complex successions with multiple stable states and multiple paths.

  • Secondary succession has significant application in the restoration of altered ecosystems.

Keywords: secondary succession; disturbance; Clements; shade‐tolerant species; ecosystems stability

Figure 1.

Temporal and spatial scales controlling the successional dynamics of forests.

Figure 2.

(a) Ecological succession on north‐facing slopes in the vicinity of Fairbanks, Alaska. (b) Ecological succession on south‐facing slopes in the vicinity of Fairbanks, Alaska. From Van Cleve and Viereck, .

Figure 3.

The simulated forest species composition dynamics by Biomass (tC/ha) originated from clear‐cutting bare floor for several Chinese locations: (a) Yichun site (Xiaoxing'an Mountain), 400 m in elevation; (b) Shangzhi site (Zhangguangcai Mountain), 700 m in elevation; (c) Changbai Mountain, 1500 m in elevation; (d) Huma site, 179 m in elevation (same as altitude as the meteorological station); (e) Mohe (Daxing'an Mountain) site, 500 m in elevation. Species code indicated to the right of (a), Yichun 400 m site. Reproduced from Yan and Shugart (), with permission from Wiley‐Blackwell.

Figure 4.

Mechanistic models of ecological succession. Reproduced from Connell and Slatyer (), with permission from University of Chicago Press.

Figure 5.

Stabilising and destabilising dynamics of ecosystems. In case of stabilizing system dynamics, a disturbance from humans or natural causes changes the vegetation to a new state or condition (State 1b in the diagram). Ecological succession eventually returns the vegetation system to its original condition. In destabilising system dynamics, disturbance causes the systems to change but the response of the system brings it to a new condition (State 2a) that is different from the original condition.



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Walker l, Walker J and Hobbs R (2010) Linking Models and Ecological Succession. New York: Springer Verlag.

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Shugart, Herman H(Sep 2012) Secondary Succession. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003182.pub2]