Key Concepts in Ecology: Community succession 


This blog post on ‘Community succession’ is part of the BES ‘Key Concepts in Ecology’ series, designed to help ecologists in learning the key topics in ecology! Take a look at the full series for a list of key topics you might typically find in an ecology textbook, each providing a quick introduction to the topic, and a list of suggested papers for students to refer to.  

Succession describes the natural dynamics that occur over the course of community assembly, often as part of a transition between different ecosystem types. Due to its transient nature, studies of  succession usually focus on patterns playing out across space and time – both in terms of the size and age of the systems themselves (Liu et al. 2018), and in terms of the scales across which observations are made (Ladouceur et al. 2023). 

Studies of succession have largely relied on two primary sources of data: time-series (i.e. repeated measurements within a single system over time), and consequences (“space-for-time” comparisons across multiple systems spanning different successional stages) (Walker et al. 2010). However, the growing availability of high-frequency, high-resolution data, e.g. from remote sensing, is increasingly allowing a combination of these approaches, with the potential to extend the kinds of sites and systems across which succession can be studied (Lee et al. 2023). 

Historically, it was commonly assumed that succession represented a steady and predictable progression among ecosystem types – e.g. following the slow transition of abandoned agricultural land to forests. However, studies are increasingly showing the successional trajectories can be variables, with slow or incomplete transitions (Flake et al. 2021), or with successional rates strongly influenced by initial system states (Abreu et al. 2021). 

Following from these newer perspectives, contemporary studies of succession largely focus on its context dependence, e.g. trying to explain cases where succession fails to progress as predicted by classic models (Cava et al. 2017), or following different trajectories along with succession can progress (Pilon et al. 2020). There is also renewed focus on so-called “alternate stable states” and “regime shifts”, where different successional trajectories can potentially lead to multiple different long-term ecosystem states, even within a single site and system (Su et al. 2020). 

Introduction written by Adam Clark (Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology). Reading list curated by the BES journal Editors. 

References and suggested reading 

Examples of succession 

Methods and Metrics 

Woody encroachment and biome shift 

Resilience, resistance, stability, and alternative stable states 

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