Species changes with succession

In the plant and animal kingdom, there are many species that are considered to be “generalists” --they can be found in a number of different ecological communities. Good examples of generalists are white tail deer and red maple trees. Deer can survive in several plant communities and they especially like fractured habitats where a lot of communities come together such as small woodlots, farm fields, and swamps. Since much of our region consists of these kinds of communities, it is no wonder that deer are very common. Red maple is a plant generalist-- it can be found in old fields, intermediate forests, climax forest communities, in bottomlands and on ridges. Red maple is the most common tree in Frederick County and most of the east. Conversely, there are other species that are highly dependent on specific plant communities. These specialists are often the plants and animals that are uncommon or rare. Examples of specialists found in our area might be bog turtles or Table Mountain pine.

Changes in our plant communities can either help, hurt, or have no impact on various species. In the early 1900’s much of the Appalachian Forest was heavily logged and experienced large forest fires. This type of destructive management helped establish many of the fire tolerant species such as oaks and hickories which gave rise to a preponderance of oak – hickory forests in this region. Over the last 20 – 30 years many of these forests are losing their oak dominance due to various factors such as insect and disease (gypsy moth and oak decline); selective logging that removed the oaks and not much else; selective deer feeding pressure, eating young oaks growing in the understory and leaving trees such as black cherry and maple; negative impact by invasive species; and the changes brought about by forest succession whereby the oaks are replaced by maple, beech and black gum. A recent study by the US Forest Service lists 42 species of birds whose numbers are declining due to the loss of oaks in our forests. To combat this loss of oaks, natural resource managers and landowners are under planting oaks in forests, protecting oak trees by spraying for gypsy moth when necessary, conducting forestry operations that promote oak retention and regeneration, hunting deer, and going so far as to install deer fencing in some forests.

Another ecological community that has witnessed substantial decline in the last 30 years is the old field sapling stage and young forest community. The main reason for this decline is clearing for agriculture, development, or succession into an older growth forest. Ecologists estimate that nearly 60 species of wildlife have declined due to this habitat loss, including ruffed grouse, wood cock, and golden winged warbler. A recent multi state initiative to help preserve, enhance, and create old fields / young forests called the Young Forest Initiative is now in place. Steps that can be taken to help preserve this ever-changing habitat include using fire to set back succession in a controlled burn, invasive species control, hunting, tree planting initiatives, meadow establishment and initiating forestry practices to inhibit succession.

Large, wooded areas are home to forest interior dwellers (FID), several plants and animals that are highly dependent on unbroken canopy for their survival. Fragmenting these large blocks of woodland by creating permanent clearings impacts this habitat by introducing invasive and opportunistic plants and animals that out compete the FIDs. There is a multi disciplinary effort in place to identify FID habitat, determine which areas have highest conservation value, and map these areas. Once these areas are identified strategies to protect or enhance this habitat can be implemented.

The natural world is made up of a very complex web of living and nonliving factors. These communities are always in a state of change, however minor they may be. Factoring in changes brought about by plant succession can help us predict what changes may be coming, what to expect, and what can be done about it, if anything.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature note for 12/18/21