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Ecosystem Classification
Putting a Name on Ecosystems

Just as a human family has a diverse set of members living under one roof, but can be identified by one name, so too ecosystems have a diverse set of species interacting with each other and their habitat, to which a name can be given. NatureServe’s interest in biodiversity led it to emphasize species and habitat relationships for ecosystem classification (“bio-ecosystems”) but we also draw from site-based approaches (“geo-ecosystems”). In the terrestrial realm, approach draws from well-established traditions in vegetation classifications (because plants provide the dominant and most visible living aspects of ecosystems), while incorporating landscape and ecological relationships found among species. In the coastal and marine realm, our approach identifies a more flexible approach to using biota, substrate, geomorphic formation, and water column features to describe ecological units.

Over the last 25 years, NatureServe has cultivated a cadre of more than a dozen ecologists that are experts in the development of terrestrial and coastal and marine ecological classification standards, methods, and tools. With partners, we have produced two U.S. Federal ecological classification standards including the U.S. National Vegetation Classification and the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard.


By describing, classifying and tracking terrestrial ecosystems, we are able to address a complex suite of processes and functions beyond that of individual species interactions, such as old-growth forests, productive soils, and coral reefs. In addition, by relying on information that helps protect a full range of ecosystems across multiple landscapes, conservationists are able to maintain the habitats of more common species, allowing species biologists to focus on the more at-risk species (coarse filter/fine-filter approach). Finally, many ecosystems provide the ecosystem services that we depend on, such as flood control, water quality, storm surge protection, and erosion.

Our approach is being used to guide national and international classification products. Our international products include the International Vegetation Classification and Ecological Systems. National projects include the U.S. National Vegetation Classification, the Canadian National Vegetation Classification, the Vegetation of Bolivia, Ecological Systems of the United States, and the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard.

Features & Benefits

People seeking to understand and conserve ecosystems benefit from consistent ways to characterize the landscape. NatureServe supports this approach by developing several inter-related ecosystem classifications. These consistent and flexible classifications, including the International Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification and the International Vegetation Classification (IVC), can be applied to terrestrial regions throughout the world.

The classifications are based on vegetation and ecological criteria, including vegetation growth forms and structure, plant species (including the characteristic species combination of diagnostic, constant and dominant species), and ecological characteristics such as site, disturbance, bioclimate, and biogeography.

The coastal and marine classification is based on plant and animal composition together with substrate, geomorphic formation, and water column features.

These ecological classifications addresses many core needs for conservation and resource management:

  • Describe existing ecosystem patterns, including both natural systems (forests, prairies, alpine, seamounts) and cultural systems (plantations, orchards, lawns, jetties).
  • Describe types at multiple thematic scales, from formations or biomes (Temperate Grassland, Amazonian Lowland Rain Forest, Tropical Seagrass ) to fine-scale associations (Mesic Northern Tallgrass Prairie, Mussel Bed).
  • Facilitate inventory of ecosystem patterns within and across landscapes, seascapes and ecoregions.
  • Support documentation of status and trends of vegetation and ecosystems (e.g., trends in areal extent and ecological integrity), including for IUCN Red Lists of Ecosystems, and North American global ranks for associations.
  • Facilitate interpretation of long-term (even paleo-ecological) change with short-term change.
  • Provide a structure to track real-time ecosystem responses to invasive species, land use and climate change, by tracking semi-natural types that form by human disturbances and invasive exotic species.