Forest Succession

Two weeks ago, I visited Panama and had a wonderful experience touring the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). I expected to visit a boring research institute with brainy people who I would have difficulty communicating.

What happened was the complete opposite. They were so passionate about what they do. Their passion affected me tremendously. They explained in simple and convincing ways that not only did I understood everything they said but I also got excited about it.

The tour they organized opened my eyes to the importance of science and how related their research is to our life. It wasn’t only for brainy nerds. What they do is relevant to all of us. I learned cool terminologies such as pioneer trees, forest succession and climax species.

When Dr. Klaus Winter took me on a research crane and showed me an ecosystem above and below the canopy trees, and the life cycle of rainforests, I couldn’t stop thinking about the similarity between forests and families.

When gaps appear in the forest canopy, it alters the environment for all of the plants surrounding the open area. Pioneer species are characterized by a requirement for aggressiveness, tolerance to desiccation, rapid growth, early reproduction, efficient seed dispersal mechanisms, and small seeds with long dormancy periods, grow filling the gap. The early pioneer trees are often low and short-lived. The taller, longer-lived pioneer species may replace the early pioneer trees to form a higher canopy forest.

Meanwhile, the seedlings of climax species remain undeveloped in the shade of the pioneer trees. It will eventually replace the pioneer species. Climax species, in general, have large seeds with substantial nutrient reserves (so they can wait), have shade-tolerant seedlings, are slow-growing relative to the pioneer species, and are self-perpetuating. As large pioneer trees die, conditions become conducive for the small trees of the climax species to grow rapidly and take their place. Once established, a climax forest can reproduce itself endlessly, since it provides shade for its seedlings, and the large trees have attained the canopy.

Learning about the forest life cycle is a good lesson in succession planning. I’ve learned how early pioneer species, late pioneer species, climax species and climax forest are different. Each one plays a role in the different phases of the cycle. But most importantly, the forest life cycle shows us how to make room for the next generation of trees. We humans need to do this better than the forests: Paving the way for future generations!