A classic example of secondary succession occurs in oak and hickory forests cleared by wildfire (Figure 19.27). Wildfires will burn most vegetation, and unless the animals can flee the area, they are killed. Their nutrients, however, are returned to the ground in the form of ash. Thus, although the community has been dramatically altered, there is a soil ecosystem present that provides a foundation for rapid recolonization.
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, at least in part, to changes in the environment brought on by the growth of grasses and forbs, over many years, shrubs 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 and resemble the community before the fire. This equilibrium state is referred to as the climax community, which will remain until the next disturbance. The climax community is typically characteristic of a given climate and geology. Although the community in equilibrium looks the same once it is attained, the equilibrium is a dynamic one with constant changes in abundance and sometimes species identities. The return of a natural ecosystem after agricultural activities is also a well-documented secondary succession process.