Competition, Cooperation, and Succession

Competition and cooperation both appear to be very important elements at different times and different places within natural systems. Competition in the classic ecological sense can be defined as the case of two or more individuals attempting to utilize the same limited resources. Competition can be for things such as water, space, food, nutrients, sunlight, warmth, a nesting area, a mate, social status, etc.

While two individuals are engaged in competition against each other, one of them, or both of them, will be unable to attain the level of resources that they desire. At least in the short term, having to compete diminishes the survival or success prospects for at least one of the individuals in any competitive match. In nature, competition is often a diffuse event in which numerous individuals compete at different intensities for limited resources. This means that measuring and describing actual levels of competition in nature can be a little messy.

Competition is commonly viewed through an economic lens—for limited food, water, shelter, energy, etc. But here we are also interested in more abstract ideas such as community, occupation, and government, so we will use a slightly broader definition of competition: Competition is the case of two or more individuals or systems attempting to, or poised to utilize the same limited resources or the same single context. This broader definition will allow us, for example, to more easily discuss the competition between cultural values or the rise in dominance of a particular cultural value.

Cooperation by any individual toward another individual can commonly be defined as behaviors that avoid competition or that enhance the likelihood of success for the other individual. Just as with competition, cooperation can pertain to a wide variety of resources, such as water, space, food, nutrients, etc. Cooperation can take many different forms, such as divvying up a resource without competing for it, avoiding use of the resource at the same place or same time, using the resource in a way another wouldn’t use it anyway, providing an extra resource to another individual, taking a resource from another individual but providing more of a different resource in its place, etc. Just as with competition, cooperation is often a diffuse event in which numerous individuals cooperate at different intensities over different time periods. Measuring and describing actual levels of cooperation in nature can be messy, especially because it can involve the lack of an event.

To facilitate an application to a wider variety of situations, we will use a slightly broader definition of cooperation than may be typical: Cooperation is behaviors or systems that avoid competition, or which enhance the likelihood of success for other individuals or systems.

At any time or place in natural systems, a scientist could probably make a case for the existence of both competition and cooperation. While they may both be present to some degree, they do not appear to have the same relative importance in all times and places. In sustainable natural systems, there seems to be an emphasis on competition earlier in development, and an emphasis on cooperation later in development. Explaining this might be easiest to do in the context of succession, so that is where we will turn our focus. Note, however, that succession relates to other patterns in natural systems (not just competition and cooperation). So this topic will arise later relative to other issues.

In nature, succession is the process by which certain plant and animal types in a certain location will eventually come to be replaced or joined by other plant and animal types. Let’s look at an example of succession—suppose a neighbor who lives down the road has a large backyard, and he has paid someone to excavate a shallow pond where his lawn had previously been.

If you visited this new pond right away, it would probably look like a barren pit with some water in it. A few days later, you might see a killdeer running along the muddy edge, and some small bubbles and greenish algae on the bottom. After a few weeks, there might be mosquito larvae near the surface, a couple of mallard ducks, a little bit of floating duckweed, and barnyard grass or witchgrass beginning to colonize the muddy pond edge.

If you revisit the pond, perhaps early in the next year, you will note even more differences. You might see water boatman insects, leopard frogs, red-winged blackbirds, some cattails, water plantain, and very small sandbar willow shrubs. But succession won’t stop there. If you revisit ten years later, you might hear green frogs and a song sparrow. You might see a kingfisher, pickerelweed, several types of sedges, asters, dogwood shrubs, a muskrat, backswimmer beetles, and several types of dragonflies.

Not only will more species come to inhabit the pond over time, but some of the first species that showed up, such as killdeer, witchgrass, and water plantain, might be gone. This pond is a typical example of succession and the changes in species and ecological organization that take place.

The process of succession happens with all sorts of areas—lakes, swamps, prairies, forests, deserts, etc. We will run through the process of succession once more with a place that becomes a forest. But this time, we will discuss it within four stages that have different levels of competition and cooperation.

Competition, Cooperation, and Succession continues…