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Ecological Systems of the United States > Executive Summary
Conservation of the Earth's 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 at a variety of biological
and ecological scalesfrom genes and species, to natural communities, local
ecosystems, and landscapes. While scientists have made considerable progress
classifying fine-grained ecological 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 classification unit that is readily mappable, often from remote imagery, and readily identifiable by conservation and resource managers in the field.
NatureServe and its natural heritage program members, with funding from The Nature Conservancy, have completed a working classification of terrestrial ecological systems in the coterminous United States, southern Alaska, and adjacent portions of Mexico and Canada. This report summarizes the nearly 600 ecological systems that currently are classified and described. We document applications of these ecological systems for conservation assessment, ecological inventory, mapping, land management, ecological monitoring, and species habitat modeling.
Terrestrial ecological systems are specifically defined as
a group of plant community types (associations) 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 will 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 factorsor
diagnostic classifiersto define each classification unit. The multiple
ecological factors are evaluated and combined in different ways to explain the
spatial co-occurrence of plant associations.
Summarizing across the range of natural variation, some 381 ecological systems (63%) are upland types, 183 (31%) are wetland types, and 35 (6%) are complexes of uplands and wetlands. Considering prevailing vegetation structure, 322 systems (54%) are predominantly forest, woodland, or shrubland, 166 systems (28%) are predominantly herbaceous, savanna, or shrub steppe, and 74 systems (12%) are sparsely vegetated or "barren."
Terrestrial ecological system units represent practical, systematically defined groupings of plant associations that provide the basis for mapping terrestrial communities and ecosystems at multiple scales of spatial and thematic resolution. The systems approach complements the U.S. National Vegetation Classification, whose finer-scale units provide a basis for interpreting larger-scale ecological system patterns and concepts. The working classification presented in this report will serve as the basis for NatureServe to facilitate the ongoing development and refinement of the U.S. component of an International Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification.
PDF file of report (4.5M)
Ecological Systems Data