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Can a plant really grow in hardened lava?

It can if it is very hardy and tenacious. And that is how succession starts. It begins with a plant that must be able to grow on new land with minimal soil or nutrients.

Ecological Succession

Communities are not usually static. The numbers and types of species that live in them generally change over time. This is called ecological succession . Important cases of succession are primary and secondary succession.

Primary Succession

Primary succession occurs in an area that has never before been colonized. Generally, the area is nothing but bare rock. This type of environment may come about when

  • lava flows from a volcano and hardens into rock.
  • a glacier retreats and leaves behind bare rock.
  • a landslide uncovers an area of bare rock.

The first species to colonize a disturbed area such as this are called pioneer species (see Figure below ). They change the environment and pave the way for other species to come into the area. Pioneer species are likely to include bacteria and lichens that can live on bare rock. Along with wind and water, they help weather the rock and form soil. Once soil begins to form, plants can move in. At first, the plants include grasses and other species that can grow in thin, poor soil. As more plants grow and die, organic matter is added to the soil. This improves the soil and helps it hold water. The improved soil allows shrubs and trees to move into the area.

Primary Succession. On an island near New Zealand, bare rocks from a volcanic eruption are slowly being colonized by pioneer species.

Secondary Succession

Secondary succession occurs in a formerly inhabited area that was disturbed. The disturbance could be a fire, flood, or human action such as farming. This type of succession is faster because the soil is already in place. In this case, the pioneer species are plants such as grasses, birch trees, and fireweed. Organic matter from the pioneer species improves the soil. This lets other plants move into the area. An example of this type of succession is shown in Figure below .

Secondary Succession. This formerly plowed field in Poland is slowly changing back to forest.

Climax Communities

Many early ecologists thought that a community always goes through the same series of stages during succession. They also assumed that succession always ends with a final stable stage. They called this stage the climax community . Today, most ecologists no longer hold these views. They believe that continued change is normal in most ecosystems. They think that most communities are disturbed too often to become climax communities.


  • Ecological succession is the process in which a community changes through time.
  • Primary succession occurs in an area that has never before been colonized.
  • Secondary succession occurs in a formerly inhabited area that was disturbed.


Use these resources to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What is meant by a "disturbance"?
  2. What happens first after a disturbance?
  3. Which species are initially the dominant species?
  4. What conditions influence the new generation of growth?
  5. What occurs after the first canopy closes?
  6. Why might species diversity decline in the lower layers?
  7. How long might it take for maturation of a forest to occur?
  8. What occurs around years 150-200?
  9. What is meant by vertical and horizontal diversification?
  10. What influences vertical and horizontal diversification?


1. What is ecological succession?

2. Describe the main difference between primary and secondary succession.

3. What is a climax community?

4. Summarize how ideas about ecological succession and climax communities have changed.

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