Two Types of Biological Succession

Kathryn Reis, Amanda Robb
  • Author
    Kathryn Reis

    Kathryn B. Reis is a wildlife biologist with 5 years of research experience addressing wildlife ecology and conservation governance. She also has 8 years of professional experience in policy advocacy and governmental affairs and over 4 years of experience as an environmental educator and nature trail interpreter. She earned her B.S. in Wildlife Biology with a minor in Zoology from Colorado State University and a M.S. in Wildlife Ecology from Michigan State University. She is certified as an Associate Wildlife Biologist through The Wildlife Society and as an Educator and Facilitator of the Leopold Education Project.

  • Instructor
    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.

What is succession in biology? Learn the definition of succession in biology. Learn what are the two types of succession in biology and understand their definition. Updated: 08/22/2021

Table of Contents


What Does Succession Mean?

There are multiple ways in which to define succession. The term is commonly viewed as the order in which an item -- such as family property -- or position title -- think of ascension to King or Queen -- is passed from one person to another. Similarly, the term refers to the conditions that must be met for a given person to acquire a physical item or position title.

Succession can also mean the order in which one type of entity or activity is replaced by another entity or activity. This latter definition, for instance, applies to the order in which members of a committee share the responsibility of chairperson and the order in which your class periods flow at school.

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  • 0:00 What Is Succession?
  • 1:08 Order of Succession
  • 1:52 Primary Succession
  • 2:25 Secondary Succession
  • 3:15 Examples of Succession
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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What is Succession in Biology?

The process of biological succession refers to the slow, progressive change that occurs within every ecosystem. Whether you are standing in a field of prairie grass, a forest of coniferous and hardwood trees, a coastal wetland of aquatic plants, or a rocky field of retreating glaciers, the biological composition of plants and animals has changed throughout time. And such change will continue well into the future.

According to the law of succession, the structural makeup of every biological community fluctuates between states of low and high instability. Any landscape devoid of life can slowly emerge into a biological oasis. All that is needed is the spontaneous appearance of a few plant species to loosen the soil and infiltrate it with nutrients and minerals that promote the growth of a larger array of plants. With the passage of time, a new set of plants will succeed the first plant arrivals and attract a small set of animals. Eventually, the sun-loving plants will give way to taller plants casting more shade on the ground that, in turn, attract a new, larger set of animals. And so the biological succession process unfolds until the community reaches a state of climax. That is, a relatively small number of animal and plant species dominate the community. The less competitive plants and animals either abandon the area or die off. But as you will learn below, environmental disruptions can easily alter this state of equilibrium and restart the successional process.

A volcanic eruption creates new landscape devoid of life.

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Moss, lichen, and grass are the types of simple plants that spontaneously arrive in the barren landscape after a volcanic eruption.

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After the passage of many years, the process of biological succession lets the site of a volcanic eruption return to a verdant community.

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There are four factors influencing biological succession. Each one plays a significant role in either instigating the successional process or determining what type of plants (and consequently animals) can occupy a community during each stage of biological succession.


Extreme changes to the surface of land can jumpstart biological succession. Volcanic eruptions and fast moving landslides and mudslides that strip the land of grass, shrubs and trees are prime examples of the topographical factor.


Across the world there is a large variety in soil type, soil pH, and soil moisture levels. Chalk, clay, loam, peat, sand, and silt represent six main types of soil. There are countless ways in which these soil groups can mix with each other. Each soil type variation has its own pH level, ranging from highly basic to highly acidic, as well as its own moisture level (for instance, sand retains little water and clay retains a lot). Consequently, the specific make up of soil determines which type of plants can occupy a biological community.


Precipitation and wind determine the directional path of biological succession. Land areas that receive too little rain may become dry, causing fires to erupt during a lightening strike. In such communities, some plants require low intensity fires to release seeds into the soil for germination. Additionally, some communities, like deserts, accommodate plants that can tolerate arid conditions. Conversely, in areas with high rainfalls, such as rainforests, only plants that can sustain high levels of water moisture can grow and thrive. Wind also influences which plants occupy a biological community. Strong winds can erode soils, causing the loss of plant life and relaunching the successional process. Winds can also fan fires and exacerbate that land disturbance process.

Plant-Animal Interactions:

During the beginning stages of biological succession, the diversity of plants and animals can be quite high. As species of plants and animals interact via foraging, predator-prey and competitive relationships, some species will become dominant and force other species to abandon the area. Such interactions yield stability in the biological community, known as the climax stage. During this state of equilibrium, biological diversity becomes significantly lower.

Factors of Biological Succession

Factor Type Affect on Succession
Topographical Landslides, mudslides and volcanic eruptions denude the land of vegetation.
Soil Any combination of soil type, soil pH, and soil moisture level creates conditions for a select species of plants to occupy the area.
Climate Precipitation rate not only determines what type of plants can inhabit the community but also determines if the community is susceptible to lightening strikes that instigate fires. Wind can yield soil erosion disturbance and even fan wildfires.
Plant-Animal Interactions As increasingly more plants and animals occupy a community, eventually only a subset of plants and animals will dominate the area, forcing the remaining species out.

Sources: ***EarthEasy

What Are the Two Types of Succession in Biology

There are two types of biological succession: primary and secondary.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the types of succession?

Primary succession occurs in areas that are completely barren, such as following a volcanic eruption or landslide. In such communities, no life exists and no nutrients are found within the soil. Pioneer species must populate the community to establish nutrients in the soil and support the emergence of new plant species. Secondary succession occurs when a smaller disturbance impacts a biological community, leaving behind some nutrients in the soil. In both types of succession, the mix of plant and animal species changes until the climax stage is reached.

What does succession mean in biology?

Succession in biology refers to the order in which plants and animals occupy a biological community. As one set of plants and animals dies off, another set of plants and animals establish themselves. This progression of structural change, from low stability to high stability, occurs until the biological community reaches its climax stage. During this final stage, a suite of plants and animals dominate the community, preventing the emergence of other plant and animal populations.

What do we mean by succession?

The term succession explains the order in which an item (such as money) or title (such as role of King) is passed from one person to the next. It also refers to the conditions that must be carried out to allow that item or title to be passed from one person to another. Lastly, succession can refer to the order of events, such as when specific activities occur during a festival.

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