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Chapter 18: Ecological Succession

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    Learning Objectives
    • Objective 1: Introduce succession by exploring the history of its theory
    • Objective 2: Describe role of disturbance and expected outcomes regarding diversity
    • Objective 3: Summarize important models of successional change
    • Objective 4: Go beyond plants by investigating the roles of consumers in succession

    • 18.1: Introduction
      Ecological succession is the process of change in the species structure of an ecological community over time. It is a process by which an ecological community undergoes more or less orderly and predictable changes following a disturbance or the initial colonization of a new habitat. Succession may be initiated either by formation of new, unoccupied habitat, such as from a lava flow or a severe landslide, or by some form of disturbance.
    • 18.2: Effects of Disturbance
      In ecology, a disturbance is a temporary change in environmental conditions that causes a pronounced change in an ecosystem.
    • 18.3: Patterns of Diversity Following Disturbance
      Disturbance typically increases diversity at the landscape scale, but intense disturbances can initially decrease diversity at the site scale. This scale-dependent process can be described with different diversity metrics, some of which we will explore in this chapter; others will be introduced later.
    • 18.4: Successional Change
      The trajectory of successional change can be influenced by site conditions, by the type of events initiating succession, by the interactions of the species present, and by more stochastic factors such as availability of propagules or weather conditions at the time of disturbance.
    • 18.5: The Role of Consumers and Alternate Stable States
      Communities of consumers also undergo succession as plant communities change through time. Animals can also redirect successional trajectories for whole communities, changing the final community structure dramatically.


    Succession, or the process of change in the species structure of a community over time, was one of the first theories developed in ecology.  Succession is brought about by environmental disturbances, and generally speaking, disturbance increases biodiversity.  However, the level of disturbance significantly influences species diversity and may be maximized at intermediate levels.  The patterns of successional change in biodiversity are scale dependent and must be quantified appropriately using alpha, beta, and gamma diversities.  There are three common models used to explain the dynamics of community development through succession.  In these models pioneer species facilitate, inhibit, or can be tolerated by later successional organisms.  Succession is commonly framed within plant communities.  However, animal communities affect succession through phenomena like the redirection of successional trajectories and the development of alternative stable states.

    Chapter 18: Ecological Succession is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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