In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Succession

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Defining Succession
  • Chronosequences Versus Direct Observation
  • Primary Succession
  • Secondary Succession
  • Paleosuccession
  • Animals and Pathogens
  • Successional Theory, Mechanisms, and Processes

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Ecology Succession
David J. Gibson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 May 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0001


In the field of ecology, the study of succession enjoys a fairly long history, certainly as long as ecology has been recognized as a discipline. Succession was discussed unofficially as early as the nineteenth century, but the term as we understand it today did not appear until the turn of the twentieth century (see History). Succession remains a core tenet within ecology, although it is sometimes subsumed with the broader discussion of vegetation dynamics. The early view that succession is a deterministic, predictable process has changed as ecologists now better appreciate the hierarchical, nonequilibrial nature of communities and ecosystems. Primary research has moved on from simply describing the patterns of primary and secondary successional change. Today’s debates are dominated by the search for a mechanistic understanding and the application of successional theory for ecosystem management, rehabilitation, and restoration. The readings included in this bibliography on issues related to succession include the history of successional studies, primary and secondary succession, successional theory, and applications.

General Overviews

Clements 1916, a now-classic treatise, is the definitive original work detailing the author’s ideas on the deterministic, superorganism concept of succession in which climate defines a climax community. Other older reviews that are still useful include Drury and Nisbet 1973. Classic or “benchmark” papers on succession are reproduced with commentary in Golley 1977. Miles 1979 is a short and accessible summary of the main ideas of the time. Gray, et al. 1987 includes chapters written by speakers from a symposium that emphasized then-recent advances demonstrating the theoretical implications and practical applications of successional concepts. Glenn-Lewin, et al. 1992 provides a collection of scholarly chapters examining theoretical developments in the field including the use of statistical and individual-based models. Most recent works often consider succession under the more general topic of vegetation dynamics, or they are on specialized aspects of succession or on incorporating successional theory and concepts into another discipline. Introductory ecology textbooks (of which there are a plethora) such as Smith and Smith 2009 generally provide an accessible chapter on succession suitable for students. Gibson 1996 notes that care has to be taken when using some introductory biology or ecology textbooks published at least through the 1990s since they often present an outmoded Clementsian succession-to-climax viewpoint.

  • Clements, Frederic E. 1916. Plant succession: An analysis of the development of vegetation. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 242. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

    DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.56234

    Clements’s magnum opus, in which he lays out his ideas of the community as a superorganism and succession as a deterministic process ending in a predetermined and predictable endpoint, the climax community. Out of date, but of value as the definitive original work.

  • Drury, William H., and Ian C. T. Nisbet. 1973. Succession. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 54:331–368.

    A thorough and comprehensive review from Clements through the early 1970s concluding that a comprehensive theory of succession would most likely be found at the organismic level rather than in emergent properties of communities.

  • Gibson, David J. 1996. Textbook misconceptions: The climax concept of succession. American Biology Teacher 58:135–141.

    A survey of fifteen textbooks to determine how the successional concept and the climax theory in particular were being presented. Textbooks intended for nonscience majors in environmental science or ecology were frequently presenting an incorrect, outdated, and misleading view of succession. Textbooks written for science majors were more up to date, but many still used Clementsian concepts as a central organizing theme.

  • Glenn-Lewin, David C., Robert K. Peet, and Thomas T. Veblen, eds. 1992. Plant succession: Theory and prediction. London: Chapman & Hall.

    Fine collection of eight original contributions examining empirically derived generalizations about succession, the conceptual framework for making these generalizations (first four chapters), and approaches for quantitative modeling of succession (last four chapters).

  • Golley, Frank B., ed. 1977. Ecological succession. Benchmark Papers in Ecology 5. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.

    Twenty-one classic papers are reproduced in this collection organized to offer an historical perspective on the development of research and theory of succession. The editor provides commentary in short essays introducing each group of papers. Suitable for graduate students and an important resource for researchers and practitioners interested in the development of the field.

  • Gray, Alan J., Michael J. Crawley, and Peter J. Edwards. 1987. Colonization, succession and stability: The 26th Symposium of the British Ecological Society Held Jointly with the Linnean Society of London. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

    Wide-ranging collection of twenty-one contributions from speakers at a British Ecological Society symposium highlighting the central role of succession and colonization in community ecology.

  • Miles, John. 1979. Vegetation dynamics. London: Chapman & Hall.

    A short, readily accessible overview of the topic. Suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Smith, Thomas M., and Robert Leo Smith. 2009. Elements of ecology. 7th ed. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

    Representative introductory ecology textbook for undergraduates. Chapter 18 on community dynamics discusses succession.

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