Plant Succession

a fireweed plant in bloom in front of a glacier

In 1916, Dr. William Skinner Cooper, set up a series of study plots in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Cooper was inspired to visit the area after reading reports from the famous naturalist John Muir, who visited in the late 19th century, and wrote that the glacial ice found there by 18th-century European travelers had retreated. As the glacier disappeared, the land had been left bare.

This condition fascinated Cooper, who studied plant succession—the development of plant communities over time. For Cooper, Glacier Bay represented a unique opportunity to study the change in plant communities over decades, as they moved into this newly available neighborhood. What plants would be the first to arrive? What would grow next? How would the first plant pioneers prepare the soil for later arrivals?

Thus began the first study of life's return to recently de-glaciated terrain, and now the longest running plant succession study in the world.

Moss across a glacial landscape, from above
It's not much to look at but moss like this will start to colonize glacial till, paving the way for the plants that follow.
fireweed plants in bloom
The seeds of fireweed are perfectly designed to be carried to new areas by the wind.
dryas plants near rocks
Dryas (shown gone to seed) is very good at enriching the soil with nitrogen, something all plants need to live. Look for moss growing close to the ground around dryas mats and the cottonwood trees that often grow in the middle.
a trail surrounded by alder plants
Alder is good at fixing nitrogen in the soil, but when overgrown it can make hiking very difficult, if not impossible!
a young spruce tree
Eventually, spruce trees begin to grow under the alder thicket.
Hemlock trees are an important member of the mature forest community.
Mature forest
A mature spruce and hemlock forest (often referred to as "old growth") is a lovely yet disorderly place, with trees at all stages of growth and decay.

Plant Succession Research Highlights

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    Last updated: September 9, 2022

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    Gustavus, AK 99826


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