28.7: Ecological Succession
Ecological succession is influenced by the processes of facilitation, inhibition, and toleration. Facilitation occurs when early successional species create more favorable ecological conditions for subsequent species, such as enhanced nutrient, water, or light availability. In contrast, inhibition happens when early successional species create unfavorable ecological conditions for potential successive species, such as limiting resource availability. In some cases, later successional species only have the chance to thrive if a disturbance negatively impacts the early inhibitory species. Finally, toleration occurs when the ecological conditions created by early successional species neither aid nor impede the emergence of later succession species.
For example, ecologists have extensively studied primary succession resulting from glacier retreats at Glacier Bay in Alaska. Over a period of 1,500 years, pioneer species such as liverworts paved the way for creeping shrubs, which in turn set the stage for larger shrubs and trees like alder. Eventually, a climax community emerged that was dominated by spruce trees. Facilitation and inhibition influenced this succession pattern. Dryas shrubs and alders improved the nitrogen content of the soil, facilitating the establishment of spruce seedlings. However, competition and leaf litter produced by these early successional species also hindered later species’ germination and seedling survival.
Understanding ecological succession is important because humans significantly impact ecological communities. Agriculture, clear-cutting, and overgrazing by livestock disturb terrestrial ecosystems, causing species diversity to decline. Although ecosystems can naturally recover from such disturbances via ecological succession, severe damage (e.g., soil nutrient loss or toxic chemicals) may prolong or prevent recovery. To address this issue, restoration ecologists apply the principles of ecological succession to accelerate the time to climax community—thus, repairing the damaged ecosystem.