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Community dynamics

Community dynamics are the changes in community structure and composition over time. Sometimes these changes are induced by environmental disturbances such as volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, fires, and climate change. Communities with a stable structure are said to be at equilibrium. Following a disturbance, the community may or may not return to the equilibrium state.

Succession describes the sequential appearance and disappearance of species in a community over time. In primary succession    , newly exposed or newly formed land is colonized by living things; in secondary succession    , part of an ecosystem is disturbed and remnants of the previous community remain.

Primary succession and pioneer species

Primary succession occurs when new land is formed or rock is exposed: for example, following the eruption of volcanoes, such as those on the Big Island of Hawaii. As lava flows into the ocean, new land is continually being formed. On the Big Island, approximately 32 acres of land is added each year. First, weathering and other natural forces break down the substrate enough for the establishment of certain hearty plants and lichens with few soil requirements, known as pioneer species    ( [link] ). These species help to further break down the mineral rich lava into soil where other, less hardy species will grow and eventually replace the pioneer species. In addition, as these early species grow and die, they add to an ever-growing layer of decomposing organic material and contribute to soil formation. Over time the area will reach an equilibrium state, with a set of organisms quite different from the pioneer species.

Photo shows a succulent plant growing in bare earth.
During primary succession in lava on Maui, Hawaii, succulent plants are the pioneer species. (credit: Forest and Kim Starr)

Secondary succession

A classic example of secondary succession occurs in oak and hickory forests cleared by wildfire ( [link] ). Wildfires will burn most vegetation and kill those animals unable to flee the area. Their nutrients, however, are returned to the ground in the form of ash. Thus, even when areas are devoid of life due to severe fires, the area will soon be ready for new life to take hold.

Before the fire, the vegetation was dominated by tall trees with access to the major plant energy resource: sunlight. Their height gave them access to sunlight while also shading the ground and other low-lying species. After the fire, though, these trees are no longer dominant. Thus, the first plants to grow back are usually annual plants followed within a few years by quickly growing and spreading grasses and other pioneer species. Due to, at least in part, changes in the environment brought on by the growth of the grasses and other species, over many years, shrubs will emerge along with small pine, oak, and hickory trees. These organisms are called intermediate species. Eventually, over 150 years, the forest will reach its equilibrium point where species composition is no longer changing and resembles the community before the fire. This equilibrium state is referred to as the climax community    , which will remain stable until the next disturbance.

The three illustrations show secondary succession of an oak and hickory forest. The first illustration shows a plot of land covered with pioneer species, including grasses and perennials. The second illustration shows the same plot of land later covered with intermediate species, including shrubs, pines, oak, and hickory. The third illustration shows the plot of land covered with a climax community of mature oak and hickory. This community remains stable until the next disturbance.
Secondary succession is shown in an oak and hickory forest after a forest fire.

Section summary

Communities include all the different species living in a given area. The variety of these species is called species richness. Many organisms have developed defenses against predation and herbivory, including mechanical defenses, warning coloration, and mimicry, as a result of evolution and the interaction with other members of the community. Two species cannot exist in the same habitat competing directly for the same resources. Species may form symbiotic relationships such as commensalism or mutualism. Community structure is described by its foundation and keystone species. Communities respond to environmental disturbances by succession (the predictable appearance of different types of plant species) until a stable community structure is established.

Questions & Answers

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Air, water, organic matter, inorganic matter
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silica, iron
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A cell is a smallest fundamental unit of a living organisms.
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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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