In This Article Old Fields

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Historical Understanding of Succession
  • Global Extent of Old Fields
  • Examples of Long-Term Studies
  • Ecosystem Management

Ecology Old Fields
Adam Clark
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0188


Old fields are ecosystems that form on previously human-managed land after management has ceased. Traditionally, the term “old field” is reserved for abandoned agricultural or pasture land, though many other kinds of management (e.g., strip mines, landfills) lead to similar systems. Old fields are therefore unique among ecosystems in two major ways. First, they form exclusively as a result of human interventions; second, they are almost always transient in nature, meaning that in the absence of subsequent management, old fields will eventually transform into some other kind of ecosystem. Because of this, old fields are often discussed in terms of their “age,” which describes how long ago management ceased, and their “trajectory,” which describes how they change over time. This has meant that the study of old fields is intimately related to the concept of “succession,” which broadly concerns the response of natural systems to disturbances (see Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology article “Succession”). As with succession, historical notions of how old fields develop have followed a broad conceptual arc. In the beginning of the 20th century, it was generally assumed that any abandoned landscapes in similar locations and climates would follow identical and predictable successional trajectories, and would ultimately proceed toward a “climax” that resembled the pre-disturbance state. However, this model was abandoned relatively quickly, and replaced with theories that suggested that multiple climax states were possible depending on differences in initial conditions and, potentially, stochastic events. Depending on the interpretation, predicting the specific trajectory that any particular old field might be expected to follow could therefore either be difficult, or entirely impossible. Since the second half of the 20th century, there has been a rapid expansion of empirical data on old field succession, both through repeated observations taken from individual old fields over time, and through “chronosequences.” Chronosequences, also called “chronoseries “or “space-for-time substitution,” approximate temporal dynamics by stitching together records from many separate old fields of different ages. Studies based on chronosequences are generally more common than are long-term studies of individual fields, though because stochastic events may lead to different successional trajectories among the different fields in the chronosequence, there is a long-standing debate questioning their utility as an indicator of true temporal dynamics. In general, empirical studies have led to support for both predictability and stochasticity in successional dynamics, though it seems that at least some aspects of old fields, such as species richness or the relative abundance of functional groups, often follow predictable trajectories. Contemporary research on old field succession is particularly active in the field of restoration ecology (see Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology article “Restoration Ecology”), where it has been shown that a mixture of active management and natural successional dynamics may be employed as a cost-effective method for restoring landscapes after intensive land use.

General Overviews

A recent compilation, Cramer and Hobbs 2007, includes excellent summaries of the history of the study of old fields and a broad set of case studies from research sites around the world. A much briefer review and synthesis was also published in Cramer, et al. 2008 as a journal article. Old fields, and particularly studies of succession in old fields, have also been a major component of many empirical and theoretical advances in ecology. An extensive bibliography including over one thousand such studies sorted by subject and region is available in Rejmánek and Van Katwyk 2005. Odum 1960 focuses on a specific site in South Carolina but is notable as an early application of rigorous quantitative methods for tracking the flow of energy and materials over the course of succession and strongly influenced much of the subsequent work in the field. Additionally, a number of general reviews of plant succession include specific discussions about old field succession. Whittaker 1953 reviews evidence from old fields in North America and Europe to suggest that succession should be studied as an emergent property of the interaction of many individual plant species, which remains the dominant paradigm today. McIntosh 1981 provides a useful review of theoretical studies on succession and identifies some common misconceptions about earlier studies in the literature. Finally, Pickett, et al. 1987 provides a review of both theoretical and empirical studies on succession, with a broad array of examples drawn from old fields.

  • Bazzaz, F. A. 1979. The physiological ecology of plant succession. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 10:351–371.

    DOI: 10.1146/ Citation »

    Review article discussing physiological adaptations of plants to the varying conditions found during succession from an open field habitat to a closed canopy forest (e.g., changes in light availability, temperature, or soil moisture). Although the review is technically applicable to succession in general, the specific focus is well suited for old fields in particular.

  • Cramer, V., R. Hobbs, and R. Standish. 2008. What’s new about old fields? Land abandonment and ecosystem assembly. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23:104–112.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.10.005E-mail Citation »

    A journal article summarizing and extending the discussion in Cramer and Hobbs 2007. Also presents a novel conceptual framework for categorizing and studying different types of old field succession, focusing on how the legacy of land use and environmental conditions at a site will influence recovery.

  • Cramer, V. A., and R. J. Hobbs, eds. 2007. Old fields: Dynamics and restoration of abandoned farmland. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book is currently the most extensive modern source on old fields. A broad review covering the history of the discipline, current theory and empirical work, and case studies from sites around the world. For several of these case studies, the work also includes novel analyses and results that have not been published elsewhere.

  • McIntosh, R. P. 1981. Succession and ecological theory. In Forest succession. Edited by D. C. West, H. H. Shugart, and D. B. Botkin, 10–23. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4612-5950-3_3E-mail Citation »

    A general review of existing theory on succession at the time of publication, with a particular focus on Clements 1916, cited under Historical Understanding of Succession. Important both as a link between old field succession and modern ecosystem ecology, and as a careful reconsideration of early ideas about succession.

  • Odum, E. P. 1960. Organic production and turnover in old field succession. Ecology 41:34–49.

    DOI: 10.2307/1931937E-mail Citation »

    Study of succession in an old field in South Carolina. This is of general importance because it represents one of the first published sources on old fields that included quantitative discussion of environmental characteristics, and biomass dynamics for individual species, total net primary productivity, and leaf litter.

  • Pickett, S. T. A., S. L. Collins, and J. J. Armesto. 1987. Models, mechanisms and pathways of succession. Botanical Review 53:335–371.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02858321E-mail Citation »

    Broad review of evidence and theory for succession, with mainly examples and theory drawn from old fields. Includes particular emphasis on limitations of existing theory at the time of publication. Similar to a longer and more recent review in Pickett and Cadenasso 2005, cited under Historical Understanding of Succession.

  • Rejmánek, M., and K. P. Van Katwyk. 2005. Old-field succession: A bibliographic review (1901–1991).

    E-mail Citation »

    Extensive bibliography of references related to old field succession, organized by subject. Includes over 1,500 references, with categories relating to geographic regions, species groups, environmental characteristics, types of disturbance, types of mechanisms, and much more.

  • Whittaker, R. H. 1953. A consideration of climax theory: The climax as a population and pattern. Ecological Monographs 23:41–78.

    DOI: 10.2307/1943519E-mail Citation »

    A synthesis paper reviewing evidence for American and European theories about succession. Important as an early, strong criticism of theories that suggested succession ended in one or more stable “climax” states. Whittaker instead argues that succession arises from individual interactions among species and environments. This has strongly influenced modern concepts of the discipline.

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