Succession: Landscapes In Progress Understanding How Wildlife Management Destroys Ecosystems

Game managers routinely disrupt natural ecological succession for the purpose of providing target animals for hunters and trappers.
By John Eberhart

Knowledge of succession (also called natural succession, ecological succession) is essential for understanding forestry, land use, and game management.

Game managers artificially boost numbers of target animals (“game” and “furbearers”) for their customers and political constituents: hunters and trappers. Interfering with nature’s process of succession is an aspect of habitat manipulation. Game managers ply an environmentally destructive pseudo-science, probably harming nature as much as the hordes of legal and illegal hunters and trappers. In order to understand habitat manipulation, it is necessary first to know how succession operates naturally.

Succession is the stepwise, gradual, generally plant-dominated, replacement of one set of plant and animal species (natural community) by another set until a final steady state, or climax, community is established and succession ceases. Each plant community is a distinct living-space for an animal community thriving within. As plant communities change, so do the animal communities.

Making a succession chart for your locality is interesting and valuable.

Every plant species specializes somewhat. Each lives in a particular habitat and flourishes under a certain combination of climate, soil, and water conditions. At a new site, seeds of several plant species are likely to be present. A community of several plant species (pioneers) colonizes the site. In time most communities change the quality of the site, making it less suitable for them. Example: Leaf fall may increase soil fertility. Plant species that couldn’t live at the site before may move in now and out-compete their predecessors. Shade may increase until seedlings can’t grow. Such changes propel plant communities and the soils they inhabit through a series of stages. Changes are fast initially but slow to an imperceptible rate at climax.

Plant life in most places is not static. Go back to a field years later, and an expanse of goldenrods has been replaced by a pine stand. Return to a beaver pond to find it has silted up and become a meadow. Succession happens: communities replace one another in an ordered way. With enough time and without major disturbance, succession ends in the natural, biotic climax. The climax community is the stable end stage that can perpetuate itself within the site’s environmental conditions.

The entire sequence of stages is called a sere. Each community within a sere is a seral (or successional) stage. A succession that starts in well-drained, moderately moist soil is a mesosere; in usually dry soil, a xerosere; and a succession that begins in water or poorly drained soil is a hydrosere.

There are two general types of succession. In primary succession, a pioneer community sets itself up on a substrate for the first time, no organisms having lived there previously. Succession on newly formed coastal dunes, spoil banks, road cuts, cliff faces, talus, glacial till, peat deposits, gully sides, shallow lake bottoms, sandbars, and river deltas, is primary succession. Newer communities follow, each of which is more intermediate in its moisture requirements than the preceding community. Within climatic limits, succeeding communities beginning on wet sites live on ever drier sites. Succeeding communities starting in dry environments live on progressively wetter sites. The climax community is neither wet nor dry, but moist (mesic).

In secondary succession, vegetation has occupied the substrate in the past. Some disturbance has partly or entirely killed or removed the community that was there, exposing a soil that has already progressed somewhat toward maturity. Such plant destruction may be natural (e.g., windthrow, wildfire, flood) or human-caused (e.g., burning, grazing livestock, tillage, draining, logging, bulldozing, climate change). The secondary plant community series following a change in the original vegetation usually differs from the primary successional series. A plagioclimax is a stable community arising from a succession that human activity has inhibited or deflected, directly or indirectly. In an arrested succession, the stable community is a naturally occurring seral stage and it should be possible for succession to continue once the disturbing force has stopped. Example: Mowing a lawn sets back the “clock” of succession and keeps a yard in grass. In a deflected succession, the resulting stable community, even if it consists wholly of native species, is one that would not have occurred in the absence of human intervention. Example: Electric utility companies may establish shrubs in powerline right-of-ways. Tree seedlings in dense shade beneath the shrubs don’t survive.

A common form of secondary succession takes place on abandoned farmland. This is old field succession. Farmers cleared the original natural communities to cultivate crops. After abandonment, land reverts via succession. Old field succession is usually a mesosere. Let’s imagine an old farm set in the hilly Piedmont province of the Southeast. In another U.S. region the species composition of the communities is different but the process is similar.

If we had enough time, say, 250 years, and there was no major disturbance, we could watch an old farm pass through the seral stages of bare field, pioneer, crabgrass-horseweed, aster, broomsedge, shrub, pine, early hardwood, and finally, climax hardwood.

In each stage, the dominants or codominants are the tallest plants or those that occupy more of a site’s area than the other plants.

Pioneers on the bare field are annual weeds: crabgrass, chickweed, cranesbill, henbit. Associated fauna are crickets, grasshoppers, ground beetles, cutworms, mice, and moles.

At about one year horseweed and crabgrass codominate.

At two years this stage grades into the aster stage of perennial weeds. The field waves with asters, daisy fleabane, ragweed, Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, and broomsedge. Tangled greenbriar and brambles furnish food and/or cover for insects, spiders, meadowlarks, cardinals, quail, kestrels, toads, corn snakes, copperheads, mice, shrews, opossums, skunks, rabbits, and foxes. Plants and animals of the early stages are known as early-successional species.

A third-year broomsedge stage grades into a shrub stage in year four. A furtive bobcat might be seen. Young pines and cedars emerge in the overgrown field.

During the pine stage, years 5-50, the pines rise and form a canopy. In the understory are small trees (e.g., sumacs, black locust), young trees that will become emergents (e.g., sweet gum, red maple), and woody vines (e.g.,poison ivy, trumpet creeper). The suite of animals expands. New species of insects, lizards, and snakes appear. Nuthatches, catbirds, finches, chickadees, vultures, owls, red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, flying squirrels, and deer are inhabitants.

In years 50-90, the early hardwood stage, tulip trees, sweetgum, and red maple grow tall enough to contend with the pines for sunlight. These hardwoods begin to shade the sun-loving pines, most of which break down eventually. Occupying the understory are small trees such as dogwood, redbud, sassafras, cherry, and sourwood; young trees that will become emergent later, the oaks and hickories; and vines. Arrowwood, huckleberry, and mulberry are the shrubs. Animal residents may include box turtles, scarlet- and king snakes, salamanders, and frogs.

At 90+ years climax is reached as a second wave of hardwood species, oaks and hickories, achieve dominance. Tulip trees may be present in the canopy, with beeches making a sub-canopy. Small trees of the previous seral stage may be joined by hornbeam, cucumber tree, witch hazel, and blackgum. Wild azalea and oakleaf hydrangea may add to the shrub layer. At the ground is a layer of herbs and ferns. Invertebrates are more numerous, especially in the leaf litter. Wood warblers, vireos, tanagers, woodpeckers, Cooper’s and broad-winged hawks, gray and fox squirrels, bats, raccoons, gray foxes, deer, and bobcats may be present. Plants and animals of the later stages and climax are known as late-successional species.

Many animals, particularly mammals, use areas of various seral stages; they do not necessarily inhabit a single stage only. White-tailed deer shelter in areas of the shrub, pine, early hardwood, and climax stages. Deer browse at the boundaries, or “edges,” of these habitats, and in clearings. Wild turkey poults needing much protein frequent “bugging areas,” stands of weeds rich with insects, while adult turkeys eat mast (nuts, acorns, and soft fruits) in woods.

Oak-hickory is a common climax type used for the example. What climax community is characteristic where you live? It depends on local conditions of climate, soils, and moisture. Finding a climax community nearby to visit may be difficult but well worth the effort.

Virgin climax communities are much-depleted ecosystems. Mature second-growth climax communities are scarce also. Many animals (e.g., cerulean warblers, fishers, northern spotted owls) must have old, big forests for habitats.

To a hiker in the backcountry of what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN-NC, the landscape looks verdant, primeval. There are 130 tree species (more than in all of northern Europe) and 1,500 species of flowering plants. Yet before Congress authorized the park in 1926 this was a moonscape of rapacious logging, soil eroding from steep slopes, fires, and mudslides.

Succession changes habitat conditions—usually in the opposite direction of man’s activities. To the extent that people interested in animals favor the species associated with farmland (“farm game,” early successional species like quail, doves, rabbits, and foxes) or that require openings in forests (“forest game” such as deer and turkeys), game managers have the task of fighting nature to artificially maintain those conditions.


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Godfrey, Michael A. Field Guide to the Piedmont: The Natural Habitats of America’s Most Lived-in Region, from New York City to Montgomery, Alabama. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1997. ISBN 0-8078-4671-6. QH104-5.P54G62.

Kricher, John C., & Gordon Morrison. A Field Guide to Eastern Forests, North America. Boston: Houston Mifflin 1988. ISBN 0-395-47953-3. QH102.K75.

Livingston, John. The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 1981. ISBN 0-7710-5336-3. SK33.M66.

Porcher, Richard Dwight, and Douglas Alan Rayner. A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 2001. ISBN 1-57003-438-9. QK185.PB2.

John Eberhart is a member of the Georgia Earth Alliance, a pro-animal nature preservation organization. He can be contacted at: PO Box 1231, Fayetteville GA 30214-6231,

How do game managers disturb natural succession to “grow” target animals for hunters and trappers? That will be the topic of a future article.


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