Primary succession of plant communities directed toward a climax is not a typical occurrence in wetlands because these ecological systems are inherently dependent on hydrology, and temporal hydrologic variability often causes reversals or setbacks in succession. Wetlands of the Great Lakes provide good examples for demonstrating the implications of hydrology in driving successional processes and for illustrating potential misinterpretations of apparent successional sequences. Most Great Lakes coastal wetlands follow cyclic patterns in which emergent communities are reduced in area or eliminated by high lake levels and then regenerated from the seed bank during low lake levels. Thus, succession never proceeds for long. Wetlands also develop in ridge and swale terrains in many large embayments of the Great Lakes. These formations contain sequences of wetlands of similar origin but different age that can be several thousand years old, with older wetlands always further from the lake. Analyses of plant communities across a sequence of wetlands at the south end of Lake Michigan showed an apparent successional pattern from submersed to floating to emergent plants as
water depth decreased with wetland age. However, paleoecological analyses showed that the observed vegetation changes were driven largely by disturbances associated with increased human settlement in the area. Climate-induced hydrologic changes were also shown to have greater effects on plant-community change than autogenic processes. Other terms, such as zonation, maturation, fluctuations, continuum concept, functional guilds, centrifugal organization, pulse stability, and hump-back models provide additional means of describing organization and changes in vegetation; some of them overlap with succession in describing vegetation processes in Great Lakes wetlands, but each must be used in the proper context with regard to short- and long-term hydrologic variability.
Additional publication details
Implications of hydrologic variability on the succession of plants in Great Lakes wetlands