The Complexity Of Succession

The traditional description of succession is that the community proceeds through a predictable series of stages until it reaches a stable end point, called the climax community. The organisms in each stage alter the physical environment in ways that make it less favorable for their own survival but more favorable for the organisms that eventually succeed them. In a sense, each stage paves the way for the next, leading ultimately to the climax community, which remains constant for a long period of time.

When ecologists began to study and document many instances of succession, they found a more complex picture. Some so-called climax communities, for example, are not stable and continue to change. Instead of proceeding inevitably toward the climax community, succession may be regularly "reset" by disturbances. For example, many grasslands give way to forests, but periodic fires prevent the forests from developing. There may be many possible successional pathways in a particular area. The actual path followed may depend on the identities of the species present, the order in which the species arrive, the climate, and many other factors. Ecologists agree that the idea of a single successional pathway ending in a stable climax community is too simple to describe what actually occurs in nature.

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