Sun rays making their way through the dense forest canopy of the Poomaale Esatate, Coorg
When a piece of land is left to itself and allowed to be taken over by the elements of nature, complex (but beautiful) ecosystems are formed. When it rains, the soil absorbs water and allows mosses to grow. Mosses welcome wild species that feed on them. Gradually grasses form, inviting more wildlife into the ecosystem. This increased wildlife helps in seed dispersal and pollination, allowing smaller trees, plants and shrubs to succeed grasslands. The cycle repeats and over time, the area is covered with a lush forest – where the interrelationships between the generations of trees, plants, animals, insects and microorganisms (both above and below ground) are unfathomable!
What is Ecological Succession and How Does it Begin?
The gradual change in the composition and structure of a natural ecosystem is called Ecological Succession. This succession begins when there is some kind of external stress on an ecosystem that promotes the growth of new populations while replacing the existing ones. The external stress, or the driving force, can include climate change, fires, landslides, floods, or droughts. However, the interactions between various species also play an important role. It is a slow, natural process and there is no predetermined course. The beauty of ecological succession lies in its element of surprise, complexity and unpredictability.
Ecological succession begins when wild, hardy species, that are resilient to extreme conditions, take over an unvegetated environment and become the first generation in the process of rebuilding their kin – the forest.
Pioneer, Intermediate & Climax Species
At each phase of ecological succession, certain kinds of species play key roles. Let’s look into what kinds of species enter the ecosystem during the process of succession.
Pioneer species are the first species to enter a new habitat and make it their home. These species are highly adaptable and have a high level of tolerance for change and disturbance. They play an important role in the process of ecological succession, by helping to create the conditions necessary for more complex species to thrive. Pioneer species often provide food and shelter for other species and create a diverse environment that is needed for the development of a new ecosystem.
Some examples of common pioneer species include lichens, mosses, grasses, fungi and forbs.
Mosses and wildflowers growing in the wetlands of Western Ghats. Shot at the Poomaale Collective, Coorg.
Intermediate species enter the midpoint of an ecological successional sequence, playing a role in its progression. They are species that adjust to changing environmental conditions, can persist and reproduce in changing conditions, and may play a vital role in helping an area transition from one successional stage to the next. They can be keystone species or have other functional roles that assist in the process of ecological succession. In some cases, intermediate species may be important for providing a habitat for wildlife. In addition, intermediate species can facilitate the invasion of more advanced species. They can provide important resources for these later-arriving plants by increasing soil fertility or providing avenues of spread.
Some examples of international species include wildflowers, grasses, small trees like willows, birch, aspens, and adaptable mammals, amphibians, birds and reptiles.
Chestnut-headed beeaters perched on a branch at the Poomaale Estate, Coorg
As the name says, climax species are the final species to become established in ecological succession. In an area with a climax species, the pattern of species that occupy an area has reached its maximum development and stability. Climax species will spend the most time in a community, have extreme specialization in their niche, and have highly evolved populations that dictate the landscape. These species are usually long-lived and difficult to remove from an area, allowing whole communities to rely on them for the sustainability of their ecosystem.
The development of a climax community is the end of an ecosystem’s succession; a stable community of plants, animals and other organisms that is well-adapted to the environment and is resistant to harsh weather or disturbance. The end result is a dynamic, self-sustaining and ecologically stable ecosystem. This stage allows species from all types of species to find a place in the ecosystem – from primary grasses and perennials to big, mature forest trees.
Streamruby Damselfy (endemic to the Western Ghats) hovering over the Kembuva river in the Poomaale Collective, Coorg
Big trees like fig and banyan trees, mega animals like big cats and elephants and the presence of endemic species are indicators of the establishment of stable forest ecosystems. The great Western Ghats – A Hotspot for Biodiversity, located in peninsular India, exemplify stable forest ecosystems formed over millions of years of evolution. They have an extremely high concentration of endemic species – the purple frog, Indian dancing frog and the black pepper spice (considered to be the black gold of India) – to name a few.
Types of Ecological Succession
1. Primary Succession
It starts from ground zero. Primary ecological succession occurs when newly exposed land or newly formed habitats, such as those formed by a retreating glacier, are taken over by pioneer species to kickstart the succession process.
2. Secondary Succession
It is a rebirth of the ecosystem. Secondary ecological succession occurs when an existing community is disrupted, such as by a fire or the abandonment of land used for agriculture.
If a primary succession leads to the growth of the climax community, it is capable of staying in a state of equilibrium until a major disruption occurs. Secondary succession is the process of re-establishing the original landscape.
We at Beforest are fortunate to witness the various stages of ecological succession at our forest-friendly collectives. The Hyderabad Collective is teeming with pioneer species like the monsoon grasslands and several wildflowers and insects. The dry and rocky landscape which was deemed unfit for cultivation has now started to grow into a beautiful food forest where we harvest a diverse variety of vegetables every month.
The Poomaale Collective, on the other hand, is already set amidst the dense forest ecosystem of the Western Ghats. Coffee, cardamom, fruits and vegetables are being grown in the area where elephants, big cats, and several endemic species live. We are excited to witness the transformation of our Collectives live the succession.
Monsoon grasslands acting as the pioneer species at the Hyderabad Collective.
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