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ecology

Climax Communities

A climax community is one that has reached the stable stage. When extensive and well defined, the climax community is called a biome. Examples are tundra, grassland, desert, and the deciduous, coniferous, and tropical rain forests. Stability is attained through a process known as succession, whereby relatively simple communities are replaced by those more complex. Thus, on a lakefront, grass may invade a build-up of sand. Humus formed by the grass then gives root to oaks and pines and lesser vegetation, which displaces the grass and forms a further altered humus. That soil eventually nourishes maple and beech trees, which gradually crowd out the pines and oaks and form a climax community. In addition to trees, each successive community harbors many other life forms, with the greatest diversity populating the climax community.

Similar ecological zonings occur among marine flora and fauna, dependent on such environmental factors as bottom composition, availability of light, and degree of salinity. In other respects, the capture by aquatic plants of solar energy and inorganic materials, as well as their transfer through food chains and cycling by means of microorganisms, parallels those processes on land.

The early 20th-century belief that the climax community could endure indefinitely is now rejected because climatic stability cannot be assumed over long periods of time. In addition nonclimatic factors, such as soil limitation, can influence the rate of development. It is clear that stable climax communities in most areas can coexist with human pressures on the ecosystem, such as deforestation, grazing, and urbanization. Polyclimax theories stress that plant development does not follow predictable outlines and that the evolution of ecosystems is subject to many variables.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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