What Is Secondary Succession? - Definition, Examples & Stages

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  • 0:01 Definition of…
  • 1:04 What Makes It Secondary?
  • 2:08 How Does Secondary…
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Instructor: Alexis Fulton

Alexis has taught high school science and English as well as college Biology and has a master's degree in education.

In this lesson, we will investigate the process of secondary succession. Learn about where secondary succession happens, why it happens, how it happens, and what it looks like.

Definition of Secondary Succession

Imagine a forest fire where the fire rages through the forest and all the animals race ahead trying to escape its roaring progress. It seems as if that fire is killing everything in its path. So what happens when a fire like that burns itself out? Does the land that was forest or grassland stay barren, charred, and empty? Of course not! Small plants, primarily what we would call weeds, start to grow in the first few months after the initial devastation, and in a few years, trees and shrubs may have sprouted, making the scene of the disturbance much more inviting.

This process of regrowth that an ecosystem undergoes after a destructive event such as a fire, avalanche, agricultural clearing, deforestation, or disease - just to name a few - is known as secondary succession. There are several expected stages in secondary succession, which are actually very similar to those of primary succession, but one thing is important to keep in mind: for secondary succession to occur, there must already be - you guessed it - dirt!

What Makes it Secondary?

This process of regrowth is called secondary succession and is different from primary succession because there has already been a community of life in the area of the disturbance, and there is typically still some life present. This is unlike primary succession where you begin with bare rock - no life - even though the ecosystem in question may have been drastically altered. There is soil, which may be housing seeds, nutrients, and other vital components that will make the recolonizing by the growth of producers, typically plants, occur much more quickly.

Secondary succession is a natural process that occurs as ecosystems try to maintain their own form of homeostasis, or balance. It can occur in any terrestrial (land) ecosystem, but the most dramatic examples tend to be in forested areas where tree lines and stumps illustrate the stark contrast between what is and what used to be. A good example is the forest fire in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 that swept through over 700,000 acres but is now moving successfully through the succession process.

How Does Secondary Succession Happen?

Secondary succession follows a predictable pattern of regrowth, beginning with weeds and grasses and culminating in a climax community. A climax community is a stable community where the types of vegetation will no longer change unless another disruption occurs, and it is unique to the habitat where the succession is occurring. In other words, there is not a set 'stopping point' for succession; it will continue to progress toward a more mature community until no more maturation is possible (it reaches climax) OR another disturbance occurs to cause it to begin the process again.

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