When lava flows and glaciers recede, predicting how species take over

May 23, 2007
Receding Glacier in Alaska
Primary succession following a receding glacier in Alaska. Credit: K.J. Anderson

When fire, clearcutting, lava or receding glaciers create empty habitat, species arrive to form a new ecological community. Adverse conditions -- such as isolation of the new community or an unfavorable climate -- may hinder the arrival of new species and change the pattern of succession. This study provides a framework to understand why communities mature at different rates, which is fundamental to managing clear cuts or fire.

Whenever an event such as a fire, clear cut, or lava flow creates an empty habitat, species arrive, interact, and assemble to form a new ecological community—a process known as "succession." How quickly does succession proceed?

Most ecologists might expect change to be rapid at first and then decline as the community ages, but there was no systematic analysis of this idea until recently. In a study published in the June issue of the American Naturalist, ecologist Kristina Anderson of the University of New Mexico showed that in many communities—ranging from plants in abandoned agricultural fields to arthropods on carcasses—species do indeed turn over most rapidly early in succession, when many new species arrive to take advantage of available resources.

However, she also found that certain adverse conditions—such as isolation of the new community or an unfavorable climate—may hinder the arrival of new species, thereby slowing the rate at which the community fills with species and sometimes causing peak rates of change to occur later in succession.

Anderson's study provides a framework to understand why communities mature at different rates. According to the author, "Understanding how quickly new ecological communities develop is fundamental to numerous ecological questions ranging from, 'How often should fires or clear cuts be allowed on landscapes?' to 'What determines how many species are found on an island?' yet we were unable to make many generalizations about succession rate. That is what motivated this study."

In her study, Anderson first developed a method for quantifying rates of community change and how these vary as the community ages. She then collected data on over 60 different communities—a novel approach in succession research—and documented the changes in species composition throughout succession. Using these results, she was able to relate temporal patterns in rates of community change to processes that limit colonization and persistence of species: competition, harsh environmental conditions, and difficulty getting to the site.

The author states, "We still have many unanswered questions regarding rates of succession. My hope is that this study will inspire and inform future research on succession rate."

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: New species and surprising findings in the Mariana Trench

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

International team maps 'big bang' of bird evolution

Dec 11, 2014

The genomes of modern birds tell a story of how they emerged and evolved after the mass extinction that wiped out dinosaurs and almost everything else 66 million years ago. That story is now coming to light, ...

Making light do the work of intricarene synthesis

Dec 04, 2014

Intricarene was first isolated from a Caribbean coral. Now an Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich team has, for the first time, photochemically synthesized the compound in the laboratory, using levels ...

You can hear the coral reefs dying

Dec 03, 2014

You can hear the sound of former bustling coral reefs dying due to the impact of human activity, according to new research from the Universities of Essex and Exeter.

Recommended for you

New species and surprising findings in the Mariana Trench

41 minutes ago

The Mariana Trench located in the Western Pacific near Guam hosts the deepest place on earth, and has been the focus of high profile voyages to conquer its deepest point, Challenger Deep. A recent expedition ...

Warming leads to more run-ins with polar bears

2 hours ago

Word spread quickly: a polar bear, then two, were spotted near this remote Inuit village on the shores of Hudson Bay, about 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) north of Montreal.

Japanese scientist resigns over stem cell scandal

3 hours ago

A researcher embroiled in a fabrication scandal that has rocked Japan's scientific establishment said Friday she would resign after failing to reproduce results of what was once billed as a ground-breaking study on ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.