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Primary Succession vs. Secondary Succession: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 6, 2023
Primary succession starts on bare, lifeless substrate while secondary succession occurs after a disturbance in an existing community.

Key Differences

Primary succession is an ecological process that occurs in an environment where no living organisms previously existed. Think of barren lands like freshly formed volcanic islands. In such settings, there are no signs of prior life, and the land is essentially starting from scratch. Secondary succession, conversely, takes place in areas where a community of organisms has previously lived but was disrupted by disturbances like fire or logging.
In primary succession, the initial stage is typically dominated by pioneer species. These are hardy organisms, often lichens and mosses, that can withstand harsh conditions and begin the process of soil formation. As the process continues, these pioneer species pave the way for more complex plants and, eventually, animal species. Secondary succession, however, starts not from completely barren ground but from a place where previous inhabitants and some remnants of the original ecosystem, like soil, still exist.
As primary succession progresses, the evolving community modifies its environment, leading to changes in the types of species that can survive there. Over time, this results in a mature and relatively stable community, often culminating in a climax community. In secondary succession, the process is faster. Since there's already soil and possibly seeds and roots, the area can more rapidly regain its previous state or evolve into a new community altogether.
A significant difference between primary and secondary succession lies in their timelines. Primary succession can take hundreds to thousands of years, given that it starts from a point of complete lifelessness. Secondary succession, because it has a head start with existing soil and sometimes dormant seeds or organisms, can take decades to centuries.

Comparison Chart

Starting Point

Bare, lifeless substrate
After a disturbance in an existing community

Initial Species

Pioneer species like lichens, mosses
Species from remnants or surrounding areas

Soil Presence

Starts without soil
Begins with existing or partially degraded soil


Can take hundreds to thousands of years
Usually faster, decades to centuries

Typical Causes

Volcanic eruptions, glacial retreats
Fires, logging, agriculture, hurricanes

Primary Succession and Secondary Succession Definitions

Primary Succession

Succession that starts from scratch without prior life.
The retreat of glaciers often leaves land open for primary succession.

Secondary Succession

Succession in areas with previous life but faced disruption.
The abandoned farmland underwent secondary succession and slowly turned back to a forest.

Primary Succession

Ecological process starting on entirely lifeless areas.
On the new volcanic island, primary succession began with lichens colonizing the rocks.

Secondary Succession

Ecological recovery following a disturbance.
After the forest fire, secondary succession allowed the forest to regrow.

Primary Succession

Evolution of life in an area devoid of previous organisms.
Primary succession gradually transformed the barren dunes into a thriving ecosystem.

Secondary Succession

Re-establishment of an ecosystem after a disruptive event.
The hurricane's aftermath was a prime area for secondary succession.

Primary Succession

The initial colonization of lifeless habitats.
The newly formed sandbank underwent primary succession to become a vegetated area.

Secondary Succession

The sequence after a partial destruction of a habitat.
The area, post-flooding, experienced secondary succession with new plant species emerging.

Primary Succession

Process where ecosystems develop on entirely new land.
After the volcanic eruption, primary succession started on the fresh lava.

Secondary Succession

Succession process leveraging existing soil and remnants.
Secondary succession in the cleared plot saw the rapid growth of shrubs and trees.


Can primary succession occur on a burned forest?

No, that's secondary succession since the forest had prior life.

How does secondary succession start?

It begins after a disturbance in a previously inhabited area.

Can secondary succession lead to a different climax community?

Yes, sometimes the end community differs from the original pre-disturbance community.

What's the starting point for primary succession?

It begins on completely bare, lifeless substrate.

What role do humans play in primary succession?

Directly, very little. But indirectly, activities like causing glacier retreats can lead to primary succession areas.

Can secondary succession start immediately after a disturbance?

Often, yes. Due to existing soil and remnants, recovery can commence quickly.

Do primary and secondary successions lead to the same climax communities?

Not always. While both aim for stability, the end communities can vary.

Are animals involved in primary succession?

Yes, but usually in later stages after some vegetation is established.

What typically triggers secondary succession?

Events like fires, logging, or hurricanes can lead to secondary succession.

Are humans responsible for secondary succession events?

Often, yes. Activities like logging or agriculture can trigger secondary succession.

What's a pioneer species in primary succession?

Organisms like lichens or mosses that first colonize lifeless areas.

Are disturbances always natural in secondary succession?

No, they can be either natural (like fires) or human-induced (like farming).

Why do mosses and lichens dominate the early stages of primary succession?

They're hardy and can survive the harsh conditions of lifeless substrates.

Is it possible for secondary succession to revert an area to its original state?

Yes, over time, it can restore the disrupted ecosystem.

Which succession has faster soil development?

Secondary succession, since it starts with existing or degraded soil.

Is soil present during the start of primary succession?

No, primary succession starts without any soil.

Which succession type involves starting with some soil?

Secondary succession.

Can an abandoned farm field undergo secondary succession?

Absolutely. Over time, nature will reclaim it, leading to secondary succession.

Which type of succession takes longer?

Primary succession usually takes longer.

How is primary succession important for ecosystem development?

It initiates the ecological processes in lifeless areas, paving the way for complex ecosystems.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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