Natural Heritage Methodology:
Supporting Interoperability within the NatureServe Network
The defining characteristic of the NatureServe network is the use of natural
heritage methodology. By specifying standard procedures for gathering, organizing,
and managing information on biodiversity, natural heritage methodology unites
the efforts of hundreds of individuals and dozens of institutions on two continents
working to advance the knowledge needed to effectively conserve biodiversity.
Over the past quarter-century, natural heritage methodology has evolved to keep
pace with the growth in scientific knowledge about the natural world and advances
in information technologies. Nevertheless, the underlying continuity of the
methodology over time has permitted the network to accumulate knowledge and
make available vast amounts of scientifically authoritative data. Natural heritage
methodology provides a rigorous set of procedures for identifying, inventorying,
and mapping species and ecosystems of conservation concern; for gathering related
information on conservation sites and managed areas; and for setting conservation
Natural heritage methodology has several basic characteristics:
It is designed to support a decentralized database network that respects
the principle of local custodianship of data.
It supports the collection and management of data at multiple geographic
scales, allowing decisions to be made based on detailed local information,
yet within a global context.
It encompasses both spatial and attribute data, but emphasizes the type of fine-scale mapping required to inform on-the-ground decisions.
It includes multiple quality control and quality assurance steps to ensure
that data products have the reliability needed to inform planning and regulatory
It incorporates explicit estimates of uncertainty and targets additional
inventory work to reduce levels of uncertainty.
It integrates multiple data types, including: species and ecological communities; collections and other forms of observational data; biological and non-biological data.
Because biodiversity encompasses the variety of life at all levels, not just species, natural heritage methodology is designed to deal with both species and ecological communities, referred to collectively as "elements of biodiversity." The NatureServe network has gathered and organized data on over 84,000 such elements of biodiversity, including animals, plants, fungi, and terrestrial and freshwater communities. Scientific names, local and global conservation status, basic biological and ecological characteristics, management requirements, and the location and condition of species populations and community occurrences are among the types of data collected. The information is housed in customized databases that employ sophisticated geographic information systems.
Each part of the network has distinct roles and responsibilities. "Global" (range-wide) information on each element is developed and managed centrally by NatureServe, while detailed local data is developed and managed by member programs. Annual data exchanges between NatureServe and its member programs ensure that up-to-date rangewide data is available to all local databases, and that detailed local data can be shared and aggregated across the network.
At the core of the methodology is the concept of the element occurrence, the spatial representation of a species or ecological community at a specific location. An element occurrence generally delineates a species population or ecological community stand, and represents the geo-referenced biological feature that is of conservation or management interest. Element occurrences are documented by voucher specimens (where appropriate) or other forms of observations. A single element occurrence may be documented by multiple specimens or observations taken from different parts of the same population, or from the same population over multiple years. At present more than one half-million element occurrence records are managed across the network, representing several million observations or specimens.
Basic Steps in Natural Heritage Methodology
In the broadest sense, natural heritage methodology answers three key questions: What species and ecosystems exist in a region (the elements of biodiversity)? How are they doing (their condition and status), and which are priorities for conservation? Where precisely are they found (documenting and mapping element occurrences)?
To answer these questions, natural heritage programs carry out a series of repeated steps. Each time the steps are repeated, the data are refined to give a better picture of biodiversity and of problems and progress in its conservation. The basic steps employed are:
Develop a list of the elements of biodiversity in a given jurisdiction,
focusing on better-known species groups (e.g., vertebrate animals, vascular
plants, butterflies, bivalve molluscs), and on the ecological communities
Assess the relative risk of extirpation or extinction of the elements to
determine conservation status and set initial priorities for detailed inventory
Gather information from all available sources for priority elements, focusing
on known locations, possible locations, and ecological and management requirements.
Conduct field inventories for these elements and collect data about their
location, condition, and conservation needs.
Process and manage all the data collected, using standard procedures that
will allow compilation and comparison of data across jurisdictional boundaries.
Analyze the data with a view toward refining previous conclusions about
element rarity and risk, location, management needs, and other issues.
Provide access to data and information products to interested parties so
that it can be used to guide conservation, management planning, and other
natural resource decision-making.
To Learn More
Additional detailed discussion of specific
aspects of natural heritage methodology is provided in the About
the Data section of our NatureServe Explorer website. For technical documentation
of key standards and protocols that are part of natural heritage methodology,
see the links below.
Benchmark Data Content Standards (Word file: 1,666 KB) and Element Global Fields (Excel file: 99 KB): These standards provide guidance to members of the NatureServe network regarding the development and quality control of core data elements. The standards focus on those data that are shared across the network and are necessary for providing regional, national, and international data products and services. Specifically, these standards establish: 1) content goals for element and element occurrence records; 2) spatial data (GIS) standards to facilitate the aggregation of these data; and 3) metadata documentation. Benchmark Data Content Standards also serve as a metric against which to measure the currentness and completeness of NatureServe data.