Pioneer Plants: What Is It, And What Does It Do?

Pioneer Plants: What Is It, And What Does It Do?

In one of our articles, we mentioned how forest in Australia grow even better after a forest fire. That’s not a myth or urban legend, because it happens to be true. Shortly after forest fire, new plants are thriving from the ashes and later they grow into healthier forest.

It might seem like a miracle, but actually it is an ecological process called ecological succession. There are two prominent performers in this case, which are abiotic factors and pioneer species. Abiotic factors like soil condition, climate, and topography are working from behind the stage. While the ones being under the spotlight are pioneer species.

As abiotic factors mentioned above are pulling the curtain and putting the lights on for the stage, pioneer species are the ones who should play the act. The responsibility that pioneer species carry is to make sure that the audiences are not watching empty stage. In this case, their responsibility is to grow.

Growing on recently burned down forest is not an easy task, thus it need special species called the pioneers. Here in this article, let’s try to appreciate the play brought to you by pioneer species.

The First Act


First thing that you should know is what it means to be pioneer species. Pioneer species means hardy species that are the first to colonize previously biodiverse steady-state ecosystems. It means that they are the heroes which help other species find the place to live.

Some pioneer plants are very tough that even the word ‘hardy’ is not enough to describe it. They can live on rocks without the presence of soil, and later on they are the ones that break down the rock into soil for other plants. The examples are lichen and moss.

Some other pioneer plants have incredible survival rate in impossible places. Some pioneer plants can grow incredibly long roots, work together with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodes, and even grow leaves that can employ transpiration. Lyme grass, sea couch grass, Marram grass are the examples.

The ability to acclimate with bare soil, respond vigorously on the poorest condition, and good regeneration rate are needed to complete the tasks of being pioneer. Some pioneer trees are also known to have the ability to readily seed or root sprout on bare soil.

But why pioneer plants choose the hard way to grow? Well, the reason is simple: harsh conditions mean fewer competition. By growing in tough places, such as bare ground or even soilless rocks, those pioneer plants can get the whole resources they need to grow well.

The Next Chapter

Lyme grass by Gennady Alexandrov
Lyme grass by Gennady Alexandrov

Their presence is needed to reconstruct and develop new (or reformed) ecosystem into something that allows other species to grow well. But pioneer plants don’t need to stay and keep growing in that particular place, because after some particular amount of time their presence is replaced by a new set of species.

This is what we call as ecological succession, and it happens because the condition of environment in particular place change over time. After the condition of environment is established, ordinary plants will take over the stage.

However, the legacy of pioneer plants will always stay in the area. Pioneer plants are the first ones that provide a place to live or visit for variety of beneficial invertebrate like worms and bees. Their presence also increases the humus level that helps to retain water.

As mentioned above, most pioneer plants are the ones which do not like to compete with other plants and choose to live in the hard way. Less they know that their ‘idealism’ is the one keeping this planet from global extinction and total destruction.

The successors of pioneer plants will keep trying to find new places with less competitors to grow, and the process will repeat itself. Most pioneer plants spread their seed or spore with the help of wind, because this way they can travel far away from the established environment full of competitors.

The World Without Pioneers

forest fire

The presence of pioneer species in disturbed areas means that there are a lot of things, life in example, is coming there. But can you imagine a world without pioneer species, or maybe a world where pioneer species cannot do their task well?

Take example a world without moss, chances are we will live in a world full of rocks and sand, similar to mars. Sand is basically a bunch of tinier rocks the product of wind erosion. That’s why, there is so little nutrients contained in sandy soil.

But when moss colonize the area, a lot of things happens. When moss is attaching themselves (or growing) on a rock, they can minimize the risk of wind erosion. Instead, their roots are responsible for ‘converting’ the rocks into soil.

The difference between sand as the product of wind erosion and soil produced by moss, that makes the soil is better for life to grow, is that the soil contains more organic matters and water. Not only breaking down the rock, but moss also adds organic matters to the soil produced. The organic matters come from decomposed dead moss.

While as a plant, it is natural for moss to be able to entrap water particle in the place it lives. Both of those factors are required for other species to start life, and the sand as the product of wind erosion doesn’t contain adequate amount of such kind of things.

Pioneering Mars


The presence of pioneer species is so important in starting life that researchers even suggest on growing moss in Mars. “Why don’t we use moss to make components that are useful for space exploration?” asked Victoria Sosnovtseva of TychoBio, a Copenhagen start-up that has genetically engineered moss.

Sosnovtseva and her colleagues have been trying to cultivate a kind of moss that can grow on nutrient-poor dirt, which is also full of poisonous salts, just like the real condition in Mars. The research was conducted in a volcanic cinder cone in Hawaii.

After several weeks of testing, they found that it was doing well. This is the power of pioneer plants. With some genetic engineering of moss, we can even unlock the possibility of starting life on Mars. The researchers said that there are a lot of things left to be worked upon.

What the researchers are currently working on is especially extreme temperature in the planet. The average temperature on mars is about -55 degree Celsius. But currently the limit that the new moss can reach is still -20 degree Celsius.

Well, indeed we might wait for further improvements, but it shows that someday we might be able to start life in Mars. Thanks to pioneer plants.


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