Primary Succession Definition and Examples

Primary Succession Definition
Primary succession is the initial colonization of a barren landscape by organisms, turning it into an ecosystem.

Primary succession is the sequential colonization and growth of bacterial, plant, and animal species in an environment that was previously devoid of life. This process begins in lifeless areas where there’s no soil, such as a newly formed volcanic island, a rock face, or areas covered by glaciers that have recently melted. Over time, and through various stages, these barren landscapes transform into thriving ecosystems.

  • Succession is the change in the composition of an ecosystem over time.
  • Primary succession is the initial colonization of a lifeless ecosystem. In contrast, secondary succession occurs after an ecosystem is disturbed.
  • Either type of succession ultimately progress to a climax community. But, primary succession takes much longer than secondary succession to reach this equilibrium.

Steps of Primary Succession

A process qualifies as primary succession if the initial landscape is barren. It does not contain soil that contains nutrients or nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Usually, primary succession involves land, but it also occurs in water.

  1. Pioneer Species Colonization: The first organisms to colonize these barren areas are bacteria, lichens, fungi and mosses, known as pioneer species. Coral is an example of a pioneer species in an aquatic environment. Pioneer species are highly resilient organisms that thrive in harsh conditions, paving the way for more complex organisms.
  2. Soil Formation: As lichens and mosses grow and die, they decompose. Also, abiotic factors play a role. Wind and water break up rocks and disperse pollen and spores. A thin layer of soil forms. This soil retains water while bacteria fix nitrogen, paving the way for plants.
  3. Colonization by Small Plants: With a thin soil layer in place, small plants with shallow root system start growing. Examples include ferns and grasses. These plants further contribute to soil development as they die and decompose. Insects and small animals start moving in.
  4. Establishment of Larger Plants: As the soil thickens and enriches, it supports larger plants like shrubs and a greater variety of animals. These plants shade the ground, making it challenging for the earlier small plants to survive. This leads to a shift in species dominance.
  5. Tree Colonization: Eventually, the soil becomes rich enough to support trees. Once trees colonize the area, they further modify the environment by providing shade and dropping leaves, which decompose to enrich the soil further.
  6. Mature Ecosystem Development: Over time, the ecosystem reaches a climax or stable state, characterized by a balanced and diverse set of species. This equilibrium persists until a significant disturbance resets the succession process.

Primary succession is a slow process. It often takes thousands of years to go from a barren landscape to a mature ecosystem.

Examples of Primary Succession

There are multiple scenarios where primary succession occurs today:

  • Volcanic Eruptions: After a volcanic eruption, the lava cools and hardens into rock. Pioneer species like lichens begin growing on this rock, initiating the process of primary succession.
  • Retreating Glaciers: When glaciers retreat, they leave behind bare rock surfaces. Lichens and mosses colonize these surfaces, kickstarting the succession process.
  • Newly Formed Sand Dunes: Wind forms new sand dunes in coastal areas. These dunes, initially devoid of life, undergo primary succession as plants like grasses stabilize the sand and enrich it.

Primary vs. Secondary Succession

While primary succession starts on a land with no soil, secondary succession begins in areas where a pre-existing community has been disturbed but the soil remains intact. For example, secondary successions occurs after a forest fire or a hurricane. Secondary succession typically progresses faster than primary succession because it has the advantage of already having soil and sometimes even seeds or roots present.

The Importance of Primary Succession

Primary succession is crucial for several reasons:

  1. Biodiversity Generation: It leads to the development of diverse habitats, increasing the biodiversity of a region over time.
  2. Soil Development: Primary succession turns barren rock into fertile land, enriching the earth’s surface and making it suitable for diverse life forms.
  3. Carbon Sequestration: Plants involved in primary succession play a role in capturing carbon dioxide, contributing to climate regulation.
  4. Ecosystem Services: Mature ecosystems resulting from primary succession provide numerous services, from purifying water to offering habitats for various species.


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