Unlocking the Secrets of Ecological Succession: Understanding the Types, Stages, and Factors

January 8, 2021 in environment, Sustainability

Article summary and Key takeaways: Ecological succession is a process that involves predictable changes in the composition and structure of an ecological community over time. There are two main types of succession: primary and secondary. Primary succession occurs in new or barren environments, while secondary succession occurs in areas with existing soil or a biological legacy. Succession progresses through different stages: pioneer, intermediate, and climax. Pioneer species colonize first, followed by more complex communities. Factors such as disturbance events and soil development influence succession. Understanding succession is important for conservation and land management. Future research should focus on long-term effects of disturbances and the role of microbial communities in succession.

Types and Stages of Ecological Succession

Ecological succession is a fundamental process in nature that involves the gradual and predictable changes in the composition and structure of an ecological community over time. It refers to the orderly progression of species in an area following a disturbance or the creation of new habitat. Understanding the types and stages of ecological succession is crucial for scientists and environmentalists alike, as it provides valuable insights into how ecosystems recover and develop.

Types of Ecological Succession

Primary Succession

Primary succession occurs in a completely new or barren environment where no soil or biological legacy exists. It begins with the colonization of pioneer species that can withstand harsh conditions and are capable of breaking down and weathering rock surfaces. Over time, the pioneers facilitate the formation of soil by their decomposition, which allows other species to establish themselves. Primary succession can take hundreds or even thousands of years to reach a climax community.

Examples of primary succession include the formation of new volcanic islands, glacial retreat, and the reclamation of abandoned mining sites. One notable example is the volcanic island of Surtsey in Iceland, which emerged from the ocean in 1963. Initially, only bare rock was present, but within a few years, mosses, lichens, and grasses began colonizing the area, marking the beginning of primary succession.

Secondary Succession

Secondary succession occurs in an area that has been previously inhabited and supports some form of biological legacy, such as soil, seeds, or dormant roots. It typically follows a disturbance event, such as a forest fire, hurricane, or logging. Unlike primary succession, secondary succession occurs at a much faster rate, as the existing biological and physical infrastructure provides a platform for rapid colonization by plant and animal species.

Examples of secondary succession include the regeneration of a forest after a fire and the reestablishment of plant life on a cleared agricultural field. A well-known example is the recovery of the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem after the devastating fires of 1988. Within weeks of the fire, grasses and wildflowers began to emerge, followed by shrubs and young trees. Over time, the forest has gradually regained its former complexity and diversity.

Stages of Ecological Succession

Pioneer Stage

The pioneer stage is the initial phase of succession, characterized by the colonization of species that are able to tolerate extreme conditions and harsh environments. These species are often fast-growing and opportunistic, capable of quickly establishing themselves in the new habitat. Pioneer species, such as lichens, mosses, and algae, play a crucial role in breaking down rocks and organic matter, thus facilitating the formation of soil.

One example of pioneer species is the lichen Xanthoria elegans, which thrives in harsh, high-altitude environments. This lichen exhibits a bright yellow color, enabling it to absorb sunlight and carry out photosynthesis even in extreme conditions. Another pioneer species is the moss Sphagnum, which can tolerate acidic and waterlogged environments, making it one of the first colonizers of wetlands and bogs.

Intermediate Stage

The intermediate stage follows the pioneer stage and is characterized by an increase in species diversity and the establishment of more complex relationships and interactions between organisms. As the soil continues to develop, more resource-demanding species, such as ferns, grasses, and shrubs, start to dominate the landscape. This stage is also marked by increased competition for resources and the formation of distinct microhabitats within the community.

An example of a species in the intermediate stage is the black cherry tree (Prunus serotina), which is often one of the first trees to appear after a disturbance. Its seeds are dispersed by birds, allowing it to quickly colonize open areas. Another example is the goldenrod plant (Solidago), which is a common pioneer in meadow and grassland ecosystems.

Climax Stage

The climax stage represents the final and most stable stage of ecological succession in a given area. It is characterized by a relatively stable and diverse community of plant and animal species, often dominated by large, long-lived trees and a complex web of species interactions. The climax community is in equilibrium with the prevailing environmental conditions and is capable of persisting for an extended period, barring any major disturbances.

Examples of climax communities include old-growth forests, coral reefs, and mature grasslands. For instance, the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest in the United States represent climax communities dominated by towering conifer trees such as Douglas fir, western hemlock, and Sitka spruce. These forests provide habitat for a diverse array of plant and animal species and play a vital role in carbon sequestration and watershed protection.

Factors Influencing Ecological Succession

Disturbance Events

Disturbance events, such as fires, floods, and hurricanes, play a critical role in shaping the trajectory and speed of ecological succession. They can reset the successional clock and create opportunities for new species to colonize and establish themselves. Disturbance events not only remove existing vegetation but also alter soil conditions, nutrient availability, and the physical structure of the environment, influencing which species can thrive in the subsequent stages of succession.

For example, in fire-adapted ecosystems, such as the chaparral in California, regular fires are essential for maintaining species diversity and healthy plant communities. Fire removes accumulated leaf litter and reduces competition from larger woody plants, allowing fire-adapted species, like certain types of shrubs and grasses, to thrive.

Soil Development

Soil development is a crucial factor in ecological succession, as it provides the nutrient-rich substrate necessary for the establishment and growth of plant species. Pioneer species, such as lichens and mosses, play a vital role in the initial stages of soil formation, as their decomposition and organic matter accumulation contribute to the development of a more fertile soil matrix.

Factors that influence soil development include climate, parent material, topography, and time. Climate influences the rate of weathering and decomposition, while parent material determines the initial composition and nutrient content of the soil. Topography can influence water drainage and erosion patterns, affecting soil formation, and time allows for the accumulation of organic matter and the development of a more mature soil profile.

Comparison of Different Types of Succession

Primary vs. Secondary Succession

Primary and secondary succession differ primarily in the starting conditions and the presence or absence of a biological legacy. Primary succession starts from bare rock or an environment devoid of soil, while secondary succession begins in an area with existing soil or a biological legacy.

In primary succession, the process starts with the colonization of pioneer species, which gradually facilitate the formation of soil and the establishment of more complex communities. Secondary succession, on the other hand, begins with the rapid colonization of species that can capitalize on the existing soil and infrastructure left behind by the previous community.

Despite these differences, primary and secondary succession are interconnected and often occur in close proximity to each other. Secondary succession can pave the way for primary succession by creating new habitats or providing opportunities for the colonization of new species.

Other Types of Succession

In addition to primary and secondary succession, other types of succession can occur based on the specific environmental conditions and disturbances present.

Disturbance-induced succession is a type of secondary succession that occurs in response to a specific disturbance event, such as a landslide or a volcanic eruption. It involves the rapid colonization of species that are adapted to the new conditions created by the disturbance.

Human-induced succession, also known as anthropogenic succession, occurs as a result of human activities, such as deforestation, urbanization, or agriculture. These activities can dramatically alter the composition and structure of ecosystems, leading to the establishment of new plant and animal communities.

Examples of Ecological Succession

Succession in a Forest Ecosystem

In a forest ecosystem, ecological succession begins with primary succession on bare rock surfaces, such as after a volcanic eruption. Pioneer species, such as lichens and mosses, gradually break down the rock and create small pockets of soil. This allows for the colonization of grasses and herbaceous plants, followed by shrubs and eventually trees.

The intermediate stage is characterized by the establishment of young trees, such as birch and aspen, which grow fast and provide shade and shelter for other species. Over time, these trees are replaced by larger, long-lived species, such as oak, maple, and pine, marking the climax stage of succession.

Factors influencing succession in forests include the availability of light, moisture, and nutrients, as well as the presence of disturbance events, such as fires or storms, which can create gaps in the forest canopy and allow for new species to colonize.

Succession in a Freshwater Ecosystem

In a freshwater ecosystem, ecological succession can occur in bodies of water, such as ponds or lakes, as well as along riverbanks and wetlands. The process begins with primary succession, typically initiated by the colonization of algae and other microscopic organisms, which gradually form a thin layer of organic matter and sediment at the bottom of the water body.

As sediment accumulates and the water becomes shallower, emergent plants, such as reeds and cattails, start to colonize the area. This creates conditions suitable for the establishment of floating plants, like water lilies, and submerged plants, such as pondweeds. Over time, as the accumulation of organic matter continues, the water body may eventually become filled with sediment, leading to the formation of a terrestrial ecosystem.

Factors influencing succession in freshwater ecosystems include sedimentation, nutrient availability, water depth, and the presence of animal species, such as beavers, which can modify the environment and create new habitats.


Ecological succession is a dynamic and essential process that shapes the development and diversity of ecosystems. By understanding the types and stages of ecological succession, we gain valuable insights into how ecosystems recover from disturbances and how they can be managed and restored.

Through primary and secondary succession, pioneer species pave the way for more complex communities to establish and thrive. The stages of ecological succession, from pioneer to intermediate to climax, represent different levels of community development and stability.

Various factors, such as disturbance events and soil development, influence the trajectory and speed of ecological succession. Understanding these factors allows us to predict and manage ecological succession in different environments.

Studying ecological succession is crucial for conservation efforts, as it helps us understand the processes and interactions that shape ecosystems. By understanding the drivers and patterns of ecological succession, we can make informed decisions about land management, restoration strategies, and the protection of biodiversity.

Future research in the field of ecological succession should focus on understanding the long-term effects of disturbances, as well as the impacts of climate change on succession dynamics. Additionally, more studies are needed to explore the role of microbial communities and their interactions with plants and animals in the succession process.

Question 1: What are the types of ecological succession?
Answer 1: Primary succession and secondary succession.

Question 2: What are the 5 stages of ecological succession?
Answer 2: The five stages of ecological succession are pioneer stage, establishment stage, climax stage, retrogression stage, and stabilization stage.

Question 3: What are the 4 stages of succession?
Answer 3: The four stages of succession are colonization, establishment, competition, and stabilization.

Question 4: What are the different types of succession occurring?
Answer 4: The different types of succession occurring are primary succession and secondary succession.


About the author 

Taylor Kenny

Hi everyone, I'm Taylor. As a Cornell-educated veterinarian, my career has been focused on the welfare of animals. From bustling vet clinics to serene wildlife sanctuaries, my experiences have taught me the importance of compassion and understanding in animal care. I'm here to share my knowledge, experiences, and tips on how we can all make a difference in the lives of animals.