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What is a Pioneer Species? - Definition & Examples

What is a Pioneer Species? - Definition & Examples
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  • 0:00 Definition of Pioneer Species
  • 0:45 Succession
  • 2:36 Importance of Pioneer Species
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Pioneer species get their name because they are the pioneers of the forest. This lesson defines pioneer species and explains their importance to the ecosystem. If you're a fan of rugged pioneers of the past like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, you'll surely be a fan of pioneer species!

Definition of Pioneer Species

When you hear the word pioneer, what comes to mind? A rugged survivalist trying to survive in a new land facing dangerous obstacles? Or Daniel Boone exploring the Appalachian Mountains? Or a bright pink flower growing in a recently burned forest? Okay, the last one sounds a little strange but that pink flower is fireweed, and, like Daniel Boone, is a pioneer. More specifically, fireweed is a pioneer species, or the first species that grows in an area after a disturbance.

Anything that disturbs the landscape is a disturbance. Some examples can include forest fires, floods, woodcutting, or bulldozing.

The Stages of Succession

So what's the big deal about a little pink flower that is the first species to grow back after a disturbance? Fireweed, as it turns out, is an important piece of succession, or the change of a landscape over time. In order to explain succession, let's use a forest fire as a disturbance, and we'll go through the stages.

Picture an old forest with living trees that are tall and hundreds of years old, as well as dead standing trees. This forest provides homes for squirrels, birds, and porcupines, as well as other animals. This stage of the forest is known as a climax forest.

Lightning strikes during a thunderstorm and this climax forest catches on fire. Animals flee, trees burn, and the forest is transformed.

It may take time, but eventually pioneer species begin to inhabit the region. These include pioneers such as fireweed, grasses, alder, and willow. New animals come to feed on these pioneer species, like moose, deer, and rabbits.

Over years, the disturbed forest continues to grow and change, becoming shrubby with even more alder and willow. Next, small trees grow, and eventually a dense canopy develops and pioneer species disappear. The animals that thrived in the region move on and are replaced with nesting birds and mammals, such as beaver.

Some of the trees that grew in the young forest stage become old and die, thus changing the forest again. More birds enter the forest and small rodents become plentiful, which brings predators into the forest like fox and wolves. Years pass, and the mature forest transforms into a climax forest, and the cycle of succession is complete.

The Importance of Pioneer Species

Because pioneer species are the first to return after a disturbance, they are the first stage of succession, and their presence increases the diversity in a region. They are usually a hardy plant, algae or moss that can withstand a hostile environment. Other organisms, like animals, are not considered pioneer species because they usually appear after the original pioneer species have taken residence.

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