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Ecological Plant Succession – Characteristics, Types and Examples
We very often see that forests and lands in our areas are drastically affcted by natural calamities (Flood, earthquake) and anthropogenic activities (Fire, over grazing, cutting of trees). Due to these reasons all plants of an area are destroyed and the areas become nude. When we observe this area, over a period of a time we can see that it will be gradually covered by plant community again and become fertile.
Such successive replacement of one type of plant community by the other of the same area / place is known as plant succession. The first invaded plants in a barren area are called pioneers. On the other hand, a series of transitional developments of plant communities one after another in a given area are called seral communities. At the end a final stage and a final plant community gets established which are called as climax and climax community respectively.
Characteristics of ecological succession
- It is a systematic process which causes changes in specifi structure of plant community.
- It is resultant of changes of abiotic and biotic factors.
- It transforms unstable community into a stable community.
- Gradual progression in species diversity, total biomass, niche specialisation, and humus content of soil takes place.
- It progresses from simple food chain to complex food web.
- It modifies the lower and simple life form to the higher life forms.
- It creates inter-dependence of plants and animals.
Types of succession
The various types of succession have been classified in different ways on the basis of different aspects. These are as follows:
1. Primary succession:
The development of plant community in a barren area where no community existed before is called primary succession. The plants which colonize first in a barren area is called pioneer species or primary community or primary colonies. Generally, Primary succession takes a very long time for the occurrence in any region.
Example: Microbes, Lichen, Mosses.
2. Secondary succession:
The development of a plant community in an area where an already developed community has been destroyed by some natural disturbance (Fire, flood, human activity) is known as secondary succession. Generally, This succession takes less time than the time taken for primary succession.
Example: The forest destroyed by fire and excessive lumbering may be re-occupied by herbs over a period of times.
3. Allogenic succession
Allogeneic succession occurs as a result of abiotic factors. The replacement of existing community is caused by other external factors (soil erosion, leaching, etc.,) and not by existing organisms. Example: In a forest ecosystem soil erosion and leaching alter the nutrient value of the soil leading to the change of vegetation in that area.
Classification of plant succession
Detailed study of Hydrosere and Lithosere are discussed below:
The succession in a freshwater ecosystem is also referred to as hydrosere. Succession in a pond, begins with colonization of the pioneers like phytoplankton and finally ends with the formation of climax community like forest stage. It includes the following stages Fig 7.21.
1. Phytoplankton stage:
It is the first stage of succession consisting of the pioneer community like blue green algae, green algae, diatoms, bacteria, etc., The colonization of these organisms enrich the amount of organic matter and nutrients of pond due to their life activities and death. This favors the development of the next seral stages.
2. Submerged plant stage:
As the result of death and decomposition of planktons, silt brought from land by rain water, lead to a loose mud formation at the bottom of the pond. Hence, the rooted submerged hydrophytes begin to appear on the new substratum. Example: Chara, Utricularia, Vallisneria and Hydrilla etc.
The death and decay of these plants will build up the substratum of pond to become shallow. Therefore, this habitat now replaces another group of plants which are of floating type.
3. Submerged free flating stage:
During sthis stage, the depth of the pond will become almost 2-5 feet. Hence, the rooted hydrophytic plants and with floating large leaves start colonising the pond. Example: Rooted flating plants like Nelumbo, Nymphaea and Trapa.
Some free flating species like Azolla, Lemna, Wolff and Pistia are also present in this stage. By death and decomposition of these plants, further the pond becomes more shallow. Due to this reason, floating plant species is gradually replaced by another species which makes new seral stage.
4. Reed-swamp stage:
It is also called an amphibious stage. During this stage, rooted floating plants are replaced by plants which can live successfully in aquatic as well as aerial environment. Example: Typha, Phragmites, Sagittaria and Scirpus etc. At the end of this stage, water level is very much reduced, making it unsuitable for the continuous growth of amphibious plants.
5. Marsh meadow stage:
When the pond becomes swallowed due to decreasing water level, species of Cyperaceae and Poaceae such as Carex, Juncus, Cyperus and Eleocharis colonise the area. They form a mat-like vegetation with the help of their much branched root system. This leads to an absorption and loss of large quantity of water. At the end of this stage, the soil becomes dry and the marshy vegetation disappears gradually and leads to shurb stage.
6. Shrub stage:
As the disappearance of marshy vegetation continues, soil becomes dry. Hence, these areas are now invaded by terrestrial plants like shrubs (Salix and Cornus) and trees (Populus and Alnus). These plants absorb large quantity of water and make the habitat dry. Further, the accumulation of humus with a rich flora of microorganisms produce minerals in the soil, ultimately favouring the arrival of new tree species in the area.
7. Forest stage:
It is the climax community of hydrosere. A variety of trees invade the area and develop any one of the diverse type of vegetation. Example: Temperate mixed forest (Ulmus, Acer and Quercus), Tropical rain forest (Artocarpus and Cinnamomum) and Tropical deciduous forest (Bamboo and Tectona).
In the 7 stages of hydrosere succession, stage1 is occupied by pioneer community, while the stage 7 is occupied by the climax community. The stages 2 to 6 are occupied by seral communities.
Significance of Plant Succession
- Succession is a dynamic process. Hence an ecologist can access and study the seral stages of a plant community found in a particular area.
- The knowledge of ecological succession helps to understand the controlled growth of one or more species in a forest.
- Utilizing the knowledge of succession, even dams can be protected by preventing siltation.
- It gives information about the techniques to be used during reforestation and affrestation.
- It helps in the maintenance of pastures.
- Plant succession helps to maintain species diversity in an ecosystem.
- Patterns of diversity during succession are inflenced by resource availability and disturbance by various factors.
- Primary succession involves the colonization of habitat of an area devoid of life.
- Secondary succession involves the reestablishment of a plant community in disturbed area or habitat.
- Forests and vegetation that we come across all over the world are the result of plant succession.