Climax Communities Essay

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A climax community is an idealized assemblage of plant species that represents the most advanced stage of development that can be reached for a given climate and given enough time free from disturbance. The idea was originally formalized by Frederic Clements in 1916, and went on to form the basis of the superorganic worldview of nature, community ecology, synecology, and homeostatic equilibrium models of ecosystems.

The basic premise behind the climax community is that climate is the primary determinant of vegetation communities. The community forms over long time periods, with the member species evolving in competition, and in the final climax stage, having coevolved to the point of being mutualistic. In this sense, every species in the community plays a vital role in the whole community, which acts as a single organism with constituent species comprising the organs. This analogy, whereby nature is viewed as a single living being or a fellow being to humans, is called the superorganic model. Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, in which the entire biosphere is viewed as a single organism, is an expression of the superorganic model. Clements’s climax communities, however, included only plant species. Animals were excluded, as were their various competitive interactions. Clements, by focusing exclusively on the causal role of climate in forming climax communities, thus overlooked the importance of trophism, which includes herbivory and is now well understood to be an important factor in the formation of vegetation communities.

Clements viewed disturbance to natural ecosysems as an undesirable anomaly. Any disturbance, whether anthropogenic or natural, alters the structure and composition of a community, and hence removes it from the climax state. Clements termed such a disturbed community a disclimax. Any vegetation community not in its climax state would undergo a series of changes, termed succession, until it reached that final climax. Each stage of succession was expressed by a distinct assemblage of plant species. For example, the earliest stages of succession would exhibit a high occurrence of pioneer species (typically sun-loving, shade-intolerant species with high rates of reproduction, produce numerous propagules, disperse widely and have short life cycles). As the community approached its climax, shade-tolerant species with longer life spans characterize these assemblages. These distinct communities associated with the various successional stages were termed seres.


  1. Frederic Clements, Bio-ecology (Chapman & Hall, 1939);
  2. Michael A. Huston, Biological Diversity (Cambridge Studies in Ecology) (Cambridge University Press, 2002);
  3. William Cronon, , Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature(W. W. Norton & Company, 1996).

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