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What is Ecological Succession?

Elizabeth Schap, Elizabeth Friedl, Amanda Robb
  • Author
    Elizabeth Schap

    Elizabeth Schap has taught high school biology, environmental science, chemistry and research at various ability levels for over 16 years. She has a Master's in Secondary Science Education from Towson University and a BA with a double concentration in Biology and Communication Arts from Notre Dame of Maryland University. She also has written lesson plans for Scholastic Inc and curricula for National Aquarium in Baltimore.

  • Instructor
    Elizabeth Friedl

    Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

  • 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.

Explore ecological successions and learn the definition of ecological succession. Understand the different types of ecological succession and discover its stages. Updated: 09/02/2021

Table of Contents


What is Ecological Succession?

Terrestrial ecosystems change over time, especially after a disturbance, in a process called ecological succession. Ecological succession's definition is best described as the changes in a terrestrial area over time through the colonization of organisms after a large disturbance. As the colonization of the area occurs, organisms within the ecological community will replace each other as the ecosystem itself changes; grasses will give way to shrubs, which will give way to trees.

These changes are driven by the disturbances that create a vacant area in an ecosystem. Depending on the type of disturbance, the size of the area, and what is still left behind, the time it takes to complete succession will vary. Ecological succession can happen in a season or over decades before it reaches a stable community system. Ecological succession is not the same thing as ecological evolution. Ecological succession is the changes in the the components of an ecosystem over time while ecological evolution is the gradual changes in the interactions of species within an ecosystem thorough mutations in genetics.

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  • 0:00 Ecological Succession Defined
  • 0:50 Types of Ecological Succession
  • 1:43 Stages
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Types of Ecological Succession

There are different types of ecological succession. Which type an ecosystem is undergoing will depend on starting events, what is already present and the time of year.

Primary Succession

Primary Succession occurs when there has been no previous life in an area; it starts with bare rock. This type of succession happens after a volcanic eruption or glacier retreat. The area is only barren rock with no soil, vegetation or animal life. Once the rock or lava is exposed, bacteria and lichen start to colonize the area. The cellular processes of the bacteria and the decomposition of the lichen and mosses begin to create a thin soil. Over decades, plants and animals will being to inhabit the area in large numbers.

As ice and glaciers retreat, the barren rock is open to primary succession.

mountain side with melting snow and glaciers, pine trees in foreground

Secondary Succession

Secondary Succession occurs when an already inhabited area is disturbed, removing most of the organisms, and needs to be recolonized. This often happens after a natural disaster like a wildfire, drought or flood. Human disturbances, like logging and farming, can also cause secondary succession to occur. During this type of succession, the area the organisms have been removed from will return to its pre-disturbed form quicker than in primary succession. The presence of soil and surrounding plant and animal life allows the area to be recolonized faster.

Secondary succession occurs faster since soil is still intact, as seen here.

burned land from wildfire with a stream running through it, plants are growing around the stream.

Seasonal Succession

Seasonal Succession occurs due to the cyclic nature of the seasons found in an area. On the eastern coast of the United States, this can be seen with the changes in the tree canopy through winter, spring, summer and fall. While there are no leaves on the trees throughout the cold and darker winter, shoots and buds appear in the spring as the temperatures rise and the days become longer. Full growth and fruiting happens in the summer and as the temperatures start to drop so do the leaves in the fall.

Not all ecosystems have seasons determined by temperature; some, like the Amazon and Australia, have seasonal succession as determined by rainfall. In the Amazon there is a period of flooding and a drier season, while parts of Australia have seasons of rain and fire.

The fall season in the eastern United States is an example of seasonal succession.

road cutting through forest during the fall season where all the leaves are orange and red

Stages of Ecological Succession

Generally, ecological succession has four main stages which are determined by the processes occurring and the types of organisms colonizing the space.

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  • Activities
  • FAQs

The Story of Succession

During this activity, students will be drawing a storyboard to illustrate each of the stages of ecological succession. For example, students might choose to illustrate primary succession in a quarry after mining operations have ceased. In their first panel, they might illustrate the mine being shut down, and in their second panel, they might show seeds being blown in from neighboring ecosystems to start the process of succession. Each panel should also have a short description of what is happening.


Now that you're familiar with ecological succession, it's time to put your knowledge to work. In this creative activity, you'll be creating a storyboard that shows each of the stages of ecological succession, either primary or secondary. Start by choosing a location, such as a forest after a fire, an abandoned mine, or an island after a volcanic eruption. Then, lay out a panel for each of the stages and start illustrating. Each panel should also have a short description of what is going on in that stage. To make sure your story board has all the required elements, review the criteria for success below.

Criteria for Success

  • Storyboard outlines all of the stages of either primary or secondary succession
  • Storyboard has at least one panel per stage
  • Each panel includes an illustration and a description
  • Storyboard is scientifically accurate

What are the stages of succession in order?

The overall stages of succession in order are Primary Succession, Secondary Succession and Climax Community. Primary Succession itself has four phases.

What are the 4 stages of primary succession?

The four stages of primary succession are: barren rock, formation of light soil and colonization of r-selected species, establishment of soil and introduction of k-selected species and the stabilization of a climax community.

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