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Ecological Systems of Latin America and the Caribbean >
Conservation of the Earth's rich diversity of life requires a sound understanding of the distribution and condition of the components of that diversity. Efforts to understand our natural world are directed toward different biological and ecological scales-from genes and species, to natural communities, local ecosystems, and landscapes. While scientists have made considerable progress classifying fine-grained species and communities on the one hand, and coarse-grained ecoregions on the other, land managers have identified a critical need for practical, mid-scale ecological units to inform conservation and resource management decisions. This report introduces and outlines the conceptual basis for such a mid-scale classification unit-ecological systems.
Ecological systems represent recurring groups of biological communities that are found in similar physical environments and are influenced by similar dynamic ecological processes, such as fire or flooding. They are intended to provide a "meso-scale" classification unit that is readily mappable, often from remote imagery, and readily identifiable in the field.
NatureServe and its member programs, with funding from The Nature Conservancy, have completed a working classification of terrestrial ecological systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. This report summarizes the nearly 700 ecological systems that currently are classified and described, emphasizing the natural portion of the landscape. We document applications of these ecological systems for conservation assessment, ecological inventory, mapping, land management, and ecological monitoring.
Terrestrial ecological systems are specifically defined as a group of plant community types that tend to co-occur within landscapes with similar ecological processes, substrates, and/or environmental gradients. A given system will typically manifest itself in a landscape at intermediate geographic scales of tens to thousands of hectares and persist for 50 or more years. This temporal scale allows typical successional dynamics to be integrated into the concept of each unit. With these temporal and spatial scales bounding the concept of ecological systems, we then integrate multiple ecological factors-or diagnostic classifiers-to define each classification unit. The multiple ecological factors are evaluated and combined in different ways to explain the spatial co-occurrence of vegetation.
Summarizing across the range of natural variation, some 477 ecological systems types (69%) are from uplands, 199 types (29%) wetland, and 17 types (2%) are complexes of uplands and wetlands. Considering prevailing vegetation structure, 512 types (71%) are predominantly forest, woodland, or shrubland, and 198 types (28%) are predominantly herbaceous, savanna, or shrub steppe. Seventeen types (2%) are sparsely vegetated.
Terrestrial ecological systems represent practical, systematically defined units that provide the basis for mapping terrestrial ecosystems at multiple scales of spatial and thematic resolution. The working classification presented in this report will serve as the basis for NatureServe to facilitate the ongoing development and refinement of the Latin America and Caribbean components of an International Ecological Systems Classification.
PDF file of report (4.5M)
Executive Summary / Resumen Ejecutivo (114K)
Download LAC Ecological Systems Data