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Unit 4: Ecosystems // Section 9: Natural Ecosystem Change

Just as relationships between individual species are dynamic, so too is the overall makeup of ecosystems. The process by which one natural community changes into another over a time scale of years to centuries is called succession. Common succession patterns include plant colonization of sand dunes and the regrowth of forests on abandoned farmland (Fig. 15). While the general process is widely recognized, ecologists have offered differing views of what drives succession and how to define its end point. By analyzing the natural succession process, scientists seek to measure how stable ecosystems are at different stages in their trajectory of development, and how they respond to disturbances in their physical environment or changes in the frequency at which they are disturbed.

Typical forest succession pattern

Figure 15. Typical forest succession pattern
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Source: Dr. Michael Pidwimy, University of British Columbia Okanagan.

In the early 20th century, plant biologist Frederic Clements described two types of succession: primary (referring to colonization of a newly exposed landform, such as sand dunes or lava flows after a volcanic eruption) and secondary (describing the return of an area to its natural vegetation following a disturbance such as fire, treefall, or forest harvesting). British ecologist Arthur Tansley distinguished between autogenic succession—change driven by the inhabitants of an ecosystem, such as forests regrowing on abandoned agricultural fields—and allogenic succession, or change driven by new external geophysical conditions such as rising average temperatures resulting from global climate change.

As discussed above, ecologists often group species depending on whether they are better adapted for survival at low or high population densities (r-selected versus K-selected). Succession represents a natural transition from r- to K-selected species. Ecosystems that have recently experienced traumatic extinction events such as floods or fires are favorable environments for r-selected species because these organisms, which are generalists and grow rapidly, can increase their populations in the absence of competition immediately after the event. Over time, however, they will be out-competed by K-selected species, which often derive a competitive advantage from the habitat modification that takes place during early stages of primary succession.

For example, when an abandoned agricultural field transitions back to forest, as seen in Figure 15, sun-tolerant weeds and herbs appear first, followed by dense shrubs like hawthorn and blackberry. After about a decade, birches and other small fast-growing trees move in, sprouting wherever the wind blows their lightweight seeds. In 30 to 40 years, slower-spreading trees like ash, red maple, and oak take root, followed by shade-tolerant trees such as beech and hemlock.

A common observation is that as ecosystems mature through successional stages, they tend to become more diverse and complex. The number of organisms and species increases and niches become narrower as competition for resources increases. Primary production rates and nutrient cycling may slow as energy moves through a longer sequence of trophic levels (Table 5).

Table 5. Characteristics of developing and mature ecosystems. Source: Drudy, W.H., and I.C.T. Nisbet, "Succession," Journal of the Arnold Arboretum, vol. 54 (1973), pp. 331-368; Odum and Barrett (2005), Fundamentals of Ecology, 5th Edition.
Ecosystem attributes Developmental stages Mature stages
Production/respiration More or less than 1 Approaching 1
Production/biomass High Low
Food chains Linear Web-like
Community structure:
Niches Broad Narrow
Species diversity Low High
Nutrient conservation Poor; detritus unimportant Good; detritus important
Nutrient exchange rates Rapid Slow
Stability Low High

Many natural disturbances have interrupted the process of ecosystem succession throughout Earth's history, including natural climate fluctuations, the expansion and retreat of glaciers, and local factors such as fires and storms. An understanding of succession is central for conserving and restoring ecosystems because it identifies conditions that managers must create to bring an ecosystem back into its natural state. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, created in 1996 to protect 11,000 acres of prairie habitat, is an example of a conservation project that seeks to approximate natural ecosystem succession. A herd of grazing buffalo tramples on tree seedlings and digs up the ground, creating bare patches where new plants can grow, just as millions of buffalo maintained the grassland prairies that covered North America before European settlement (footnote 10).

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