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Ecological Succession Lab Activity

An ​ecological succession ​is the replacement of populations in habitat as it moves toward
a stable state. The progress of a succession is determined by changes in plant number
and species over time.
The environment may be altered in substantial ways through the activities of organisms,
including humans, or when the climate changes. Although these alterations are
sometimes abrupt (ex. natural disasters), in most cases species replace others, resulting in
long-term gradual changes in ecosystems.
Ecosystems tend to change with time until a stable system is formed. The type of
ecosystem that is formed depends on the soil or climatic limitations of a given
geographical area.
Pioneer organisms​ are the first organisms to establish themselves in a succession. These
organisms could include lichens on bare rock or annual grasses on an abandoned farm
hay field. Pioneer organisms modify their environment, thus establishing conditions
under which more advanced organisms can live. An example of this could include
lichens breaking down rock to form small pockets of soil where small plants such as
grasses may become established.
During a succession, each community over time modifies its environment, often making
in time making it more difficult for it to succeed and more favorable for the community
that follows it.
Successions may be categorized as being primary or secondary successions.
A ​primary succession​ occurs in an environment where plants previously did not exist. A
primary succession would occur when plants become established on a lava flow from a
volcano. A ​secondary succession​ refers to the return of an area to its natural vegetation
following a disruption or removal of the original dominant community. A forest fire
which burns a forest that is a thousand years old would be an example of an event that
could trigger a secondary succession.
Common secondary successions in the Northeastern United States might involve the
abandonment of a plowed field. Within a year or two, annual grasses will take over the
field. These in turn will slowly be shaded out by larger shrubs and blackberry briers.
Eventually these plants will be shaded out by larger sun-loving trees such as cherries,
poplars (alders) and birches. In time these trees will be replaced by larger trees forming
a ​climax community​. In the colder regions of the Northeastern US, the climax
community is often dominated by trees such as beech and maple, while in warmer
climates oak, hickory and even sycamore are more predominate.
The climax community is a self-perpetuating community in which populations remain
stable and exist in balance with each other and their environment. The species diversity
and numbers may remain stable for hundreds or thousands of years in a climax
community. This climax community will persist until a catastrophic change of a major
biotic or abiotic nature alters or destroys it. Wind storms, floods, and disease are just a
few examples of such catastrophic events.
After the climax community has been destroyed, the damaged ecosystem is likely to
recover in stages that eventually result in a stable system similar to the original one.

Image source

Using the information in the reading passage, define the following terms.
1. ecological succession – ​new organisms being added to a habitat after the death of
older ones
2. primary succession – ​succession that leads to a new environment for the first time
3. secondary succession – ​old environment is revived after a period of time
4. pioneer organism – ​first living things to pop up from succession
5. climax community -- ​small plants replaced by larger plants
View of an early ecological succession taken from NY-86 looking toward
Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.
(Personal photo)

In this activity you will apply what you have learned about succession to the ecological
changes that occur in an abandoned hay field similar to the one pictured above. After
5 years, several types of trees have begun to grow where there was once only hay. You
will observe, by counting, the number and types of some major plants that grow in this
field 5, 15, 40 and 100 years after abandonment.
Part One:
For each data table and diagram on pages 4 through 7, count how many of each species
are found in the field, using the key as a guide. Add up all of the plants to find the total
number of plants present in the field. You will now calculate the percentage of each
species at each observed time period. Use the following formula, rounding your answer
to the nearest tenth.
Number of specific plant ÷ TOTAL number of plants = _______ X 100 = ______%

Please note that the air and soil temperatures in the sample area have also been indicated.
(For the purposes of this activity, we will assume the area is under the influence of the
same type of air mass producing extremely similar climatological conditions in each
different year.)
(Major Plants Observed 5 years after ecosystem disruption)

Plant species Number of Plants % of Total

Yellow Birch Tree ​○ 2 8.3%

Poplar (Aspen) Tree ​▲ 1 4.2%

Pin Cherry Tree ​■ 6 25%

Blackberry brier ​● 15 62.5%

Sugar Maple Tree ​□ 0 0%

Beech Tree ​◇ 0 0%

TOTAL Plants 24 100%

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(Major Plants Observed 15 years after ecosystem disruption)

Plant species Number of Plants % of Total

Yellow Birch Tree​○ 5 17.9%

Poplar (Aspen) Tree ​▲ 8 28.6%

Pin Cherry Tree ​■ 8 28.6%

Blackberry ​● 3 10.7%

Sugar Maple Tree ​□ 3 10.7%

Beech Tree ​◇ 1 3.6%

TOTAL 28 100%

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(Major Plants Observed 40 years after ecosystem disruption)

Plant Species Number of Plants % of Total

Yellow Birch Tree ​○ 6 19.4%

Poplar (Aspen) Tree ​▲ 10 32.3%

Pin Cherry Tree ​■ 0 0%

Blackberry ​● 0 0%

Sugar Maple Tree ​□ 8 25.8%

Beech Tree ​◇ 7 22.6%

TOTAL 31 100%

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(Major Plants observed 100 years after ecosystem disruption)

Plant Species Number of Plants % of Total

Yellow Birch Tree ​○ 10 21.7%

Poplar (Aspen) Tree ​▲ 0 0%

Pin Cherry Tree ​■ 0 0%

Blackberry ​● 0 0%

Sugar Maple Tree ​□ 18 39.1%

Beech Tree ​◇ 18 39.1%

TOTAL 46 100%

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Procedure B​: Using the data in the tables you just completed, construct two separate line
graph involving the plant species and insert them below. The types of plant species that
need to be on each graph are listed below. Plot the % of plant species on the y-axis and
time in years on the x-axis. Be sure to include a graph title and a key/legend.
Graph A​: Yellow Birch Tree, Sugar Maple Tree, and Beech Tree

Graph B​: Blackberry, Poplar (Aspen) Tree, Pin Cherry Tree

Analysis Questions
After completing the graph, answer the following analysis questions.
1. Describe, in terms of ​decreasing or increasing​ percentage, what happened to each
of the following populations from 5 to 100 years after the field was abandoned:
a. Yellow birch - ​the population increased in percentage
b. Poplar - ​the population decreased in percentage
c. Pin cherry - ​the population decreased in percentage
d. Blackberry - ​the population decreased in percentage
e. Sugar maple - ​the population increased in percentage
f. Beech - ​the population increased in percentage
2. Which species disappeared between 15 and 40 years after the field was
abandoned? ​Blackberry, Poplar, and Pin Cherry
3. Consider the types of plants growing after 5 years in the abandoned field. Are they
tall or short species? ​Short
a. Now consider the types of plants growing after 40 years. Are they tall or
short species? ​Tall
4. Based upon the answers you gave for the preceding question, state one reason why
some of the earlier species may have disappeared. ​The environment may have
replenished its resources and so now it is able to support larger plant species.
5. What happened to the air temperature and soil surface temperature in area sampled
during the 100 year period of the observations? ​The air and soil surface
temperatures decreased.
6. What caused the change in the air and soil temperature during this time period?
The presence of beech and maple trees, which survive better in cooler climates.
7. This activity documented the changes that occurred in some species of plants that
grew in this area for a 100 year period. How would the presence of other types of
organisms be affected by these changes in the dominant plant life over time? ​The
changes in the biodiversity of the plant populations will likely affect the
biodiversity of the animal populations. Since there are more larger trees, it is likely
that they can support more animal populations as there is more energy to distribute
throughout the ecosystem.
8. How did the number of plants recorded change in the community over time? ​The
number of short plants recorded decreased while the number of large plants
recorded increased.
9. Do the changes in this community best support that a primary succession or a
secondary succession has occurred? Support your answer. ​It is likely that the
changes in this community reflect that a secondary succession has occured. This is
because the populations of the more smaller plants, like blackberry, started off
with none. At the end of the 100 period, they returned back to 0, suggesting that
the original population before the catastrophic event had very few small plants
10. Will the plant species change significantly in this habitat after 100 years? Support
your answer. ​No, the plant species will likely not change significantly after 100
years since they already have large plants present. This suggests that they have
reached their apex in terms of the size of their plant population, so there is no need
to change it at this point.
11. List one human caused and one non-human caused event that would cause this
forest ecosystem to become a field again. ​Human caused: deforestation.
Non-human caused: extreme drought or frost.
12. After these catastrophic events, would you expect to a forest to return to the
climax community again? (Support your answer.) ​Yes, I would expect a forest to
return to the climax community again. As we saw in this example, it takes about
100 years for this habitat to grow large sized plants. We even saw that the
temperature and soil temperature values shifted to support these large plants. So it
stands within reason to say that even if a catastrophic event were to occur, that the
population would return to normal.
13. Identify the independent and dependent variables in this investigation based upon
the information you plotted in your graph. Support your answer as to why you
identified these factors as the independent and dependent variables. ​Independent
variable = Time of Succession. Dependent Variable = % of Plant Species. Time of
Succession is an independent variable in this case because time always passes
irrespective of whatever events occur. The percentage of plant species however is
dependent on time, because Ecological Succession requires certain phases of time
for certain sized species to sprout up. As we saw in the investigation, depending
on how long succession occurred, there would be a certain sized plant species
present in that ecosystem.