UChicago and the idea of ecological succession

plant popping up through lava at Kilauea

Ecological succession is the process by which the mix of species and habitat in an area changes over time. Gradually, these communities replace one another until a “climax community”—like a mature forest—is reached, or until a disturbance, like a fire, occurs.

Ecological succession is a fundamental concept in ecology. The study of succession was pioneered at the University of Chicago by Henry Chandler Cowles, who was also one of the founders of ecology as a discipline, as he studied the plants of the Indiana Dunes.

Understanding how succession happens in a variety of ecosystems—and what kinds of disturbances and time spans lead to the formation of different plant and animal communities—is important for scientists who want to understand ecosystem dynamics and effectively protect or restore natural communities.

Today, the concept of ecological succession continues to be studied from new angles as humans modify the global environment more than ever before. As new nuances have been added to the original theory, insights have emerged that are valuable to humans interested in managing natural resources. Studying succession can provide valuable insights for ecologists and wildlife managers interested in restoring natural systems: through careful management such as controlled burning or invasive species control, people can help ecological communities stay strong.

The University of Chicago remains a leader in research on ecology and evolutionary biology. The University’s Warren Woods Ecological Field Station in Berrien County, Michigan offers students, faculty and staff the opportunity to study and observe ecosystem dynamics in a landscape that includes both remnant (undisturbed) forest, restored prairie and old fields.

Related UChicago Biosciences experts: Catherine Pfister, PhD (Ecology & Evolution, Evolutionary Biology), Gregor Dwyer, PhD (Ecology & Evolution)

Read the full story "Core Knowledge: Ecological succession, explained" by Max Witynski published December 22, 2021

Instagram Facebook Youtube