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What is Secondary Succession?

Wynn Ann Wells-Mourre, Alexis Fulton, Amanda Robb
  • Author
    Wynn Ann Wells-Mourre

    Wynn-Ann Wells-Mourre has over 20 years experience writing and editing educational materials for both the K-12 and secondary education sectors as well as the energy (oil and gas), health and safety, financial, and medial fields. She has worked in three different countries througout her career - Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She holds three degrees - a BAHon in English from St.Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and a BEd and MEd in Special Education and Curriculum and Instruction from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor.

  • Instructor
    Alexis Fulton

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

  • Expert Contributor
    Amanda Robb

    Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

This lesson will explain what secondary succession is, how it differs from primary succession, its different stages, and some common examples of this type of succession. Updated: 07/19/2021

What is Secondary Succession?

Ecological succession refers to changes that occur in an ecosystem over time.

Image of ecosystem in Alaska

Ecological succession refers to changes that occur in an ecosystem (a biological community where organisms interact with their environment) over time. It is basically a predictable set of changes that are visible over a certain period. It occurs in all kinds of ecosystems such as oceans, wetlands, tundras, deserts, and forests.

There are two types of ecological succession:

  • Primary ecological succession, and
  • Secondary ecological succession.

Primary succession is the succession that occurs in areas that have no living things such as areas without soil or areas where the soil cannot really sustain living things. Primary succession occurs when this area first becomes colonized with living plants or organisms. Plants will come first and, as that population grows, animals will flock to that area as well and make it their home. This process is very time-consuming and it can take decades or even millions of years for primary succession to complete. An example of primary succession could be the colonization of a barren area following a severe landslide or a recently exposed land from retreating glaciers.

Secondary succession is the succession that occurs when the primary succession is destroyed or disrupted by something that causes a reduction in the number of original plants and animals in that area. It is a natural process that occurs as ecosystems try to maintain their own form of homeostasis or balance. New species of plants and animals are needed to replace the losses and recolonization begins. It is normally a much quicker process because the soil is already there and some vegetation may have survived the disaster. An example of secondary succession is the recolonization of an area damaged by fire.

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!

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Secondary Succession

A flood is an example of an event that can cause secondary succession.

Image of a flood

Secondary succession occurs in ecosystems that have been disrupted by humans, animals, or by nature. When the disturbance occurs, it drives out many plants and animals but does not render the habitat lifeless. The remaining soil may still have nutrients and seeds that will grow again with time. There are a number of things that can cause secondary succession to occur, including:

  • Forest fires, natural or man-made
  • Flooding
  • Storms like windstorms and rainstorms
  • Human activities like forest logging, building, and farming
  • Crop and plant diseases
  • Earthquakes

Major catastrophic events like major volcanoes and advancing glaciers will not lead to secondary succession as these major events destroy everything. If seeds and soil were to survive, they would be covered by ash, rock, or ice and that will prevent development from occurring. This area would return to life via primary succession.

The stages of secondary succession are as follows:

  • A growing ecosystem exists.
  • An event occurs that destroys a lot of the existing growth.
  • The event stops, as does the destruction.
  • The soil remains.
  • Time passes.
  • Regrowth starts to occur.
  • Fast-growing plants and/or trees start growing.
  • Slower growing plants and/or trees come back and start growing.
  • Eventually, the area is fully populated with plant life again, but it may be more diverse than it had been prior to being destroyed.

Basically, there are really three main stages. These stages are basically the same for primary and secondary succession with the only difference being that primary succession has no preexisting forms of life. The stages are:

  1. Pioneer Species: These are the first species to begin colonizing the ecosystem.
  2. Intermediate Species: Once the pioneer species colonize the area, this species begins to emerge.
  3. Climax community: This is the stage at which a more stable ecosystem begins to emerge and homeostasis is achieved.

The diagram on-screen provides an example of the three stages using an oak and hickory forest as an example.

There are three main stages in secondary succession.

Stages of secondary succession

Pioneer Species

The pioneer species are the first organisms to appear and they can basically colonize anywhere, even bare rock if required. They are often termed producers because they can make their own food. As they have simple nutritional needs, they can convert rock to soil, allowing other organisms the ability to develop. The first pioneer species to emerge is normally lichen followed by mosses and other herbaceous plants like ferns and grasses. As they continue to grow and develop to become more plentiful, they alter the habitat and provide nutrients that were not available before. This allows the pioneer species to be replaced by more complex ones. The role of the pioneer species is basically to ready the soil for the species that comes next, the intermediate species. In the diagram, annual plants are the first to appear followed by grasses and perennials.

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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Video Transcript

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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  • Activities
  • FAQs

A Succession Story

In this activity, students will be combining their knowledge of secondary succession and their creative writing skills to write a story about secondary succession in an ecosystem. Students should first pick a particular biome to set their story and do research about the types of animals and plants that live there, as well as the order of succession for that ecosystem. You should guide students toward academic sources, such as those from universities, news outlets, or scientists. Students can then construct a plot about secondary succession that incorporates the science they learned. For example, students might choose to write a story about a forest fire that took place on the American prairie and how grasses first colonized the charred land, followed by shrubs, trees, insect and finally mammals.

Directions

In this activity, you'll be applying what you know about secondary succession to write a short story. This story should focus on the science behind secondary succession. Start by choosing a setting, a particular biome. Then, research how succession happens in that biome using academic sources from scientists, news outlets or universities. Then, create a plot outline that has rising action, a climax and a resolution. Then, let the creative juices flow and write your story! To make sure you have everything you need, look over the criteria for success below.

Criteria For Success

  • Short story is about secondary succession in a chosen ecosystem
  • The sequence of events in secondary succession is scientifically accurate
  • Story is at least 1,000 words and includes scientific vocabulary
  • Story has a clear plot line, including rising action, a climax and a resolution

Why is it called secondary succession?

Secondary succession is called secondary because it comes after primary succession. Primary succession occurs when an ecological community first enters the barren habitat. Secondary succession occurs after the initial community is established and has become disturbed in some way.

What can cause secondary succession?

Secondary succession is caused by a major disturbance, such as a storm, fire, or man-made activity like logging. This disturbance destroys the majority of the ecosystem but still leaves behind some remnants of life in the soil like seeds. These remnants allow for new plants and organisms to develop.

What is the order of secondary succession?

The order of secondary succession is pioneer species, intermediate species, and finally climax community. The pioneer species are the first to colonize and include the producers like lichens and mosses. The intermediate species appear next and include shrubby plants and small trees. Finally, the climax community develops and allows homeostasis to be etabished.

What are some examples of primary and secondary succession?

Examples of primary succession include any colonization that occurs on land that is devoid of life. This can include the colonization of barren landscapes following rockslides or landslides or recently exposed land from retreating glaciers. Examples of secondary succession include any colonization that occurs on land that is being recolonized after a major disturbance such as forest fires, crop or plant disease, and flooding,

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