Naming and Mapping the Patterns

One way to recognize patterns in the landscape is to assign them names and descriptions. Ecologists call this work of categorizing patterns in the landscape "classification." Naming natural communities and ecological systems makes it possible to map them.

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Naming and Mapping Natural Communities

The natural communities described by name on this website are among thousands in the U.S. National Vegetation Classification (USNVC).1  2 Ecologists nationwide and the federal government use the USNVC to classify (categorize) and map natural communities. It is a subset of the even larger International Vegetation Classification (IVC), which uses the EcoVeg approach.3 Each natural community is given an official name and a code for clear identification. Using this standard classification allows scientists to define and map natural communities across their entire range, and to communicate with each other about the health and extent of these communities.

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Why Named After Plants, Not Animals?

Natural communities are named after plants because plants, unlike animals, are rooted in place and are usually easy to find and see. Many animals roam from one community to another, or if they live in a small area, they can be hard to find (snails and salamanders, for example). Furthermore, many animals avoid being seen by humans. For these reasons, it’s easier in most cases to define, describe, map, and recognize patterns in the landscape using plants (and geographic features) rather than animals.

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Why So Many Names?

Every natural community has several names, each of which serves a different purpose. The scientific name is detailed, descriptive, and specific so as to avoid any confusion among the wide audience of ecologists and other scientists who might be using the name. But it’s long and it’s in Latin. For that reason, there’s an official common name, which is a little shorter and uses English. There’s an even shorter official code—a collection of letters and numbers that ecologists use on maps, reports, and believe it or not, sometimes in conversation. For this website, we’ve used nicknames that are abbreviated versions of the official common name. All of these names are listed at the bottom of each natural community page, in the Classification section.


Abbreviated Common Name: Oak - Beech / Heath Forest
Common Name: Northeastern Coastal Plain / Piedmont Oak – Beech / Heath Forest
Scientific Name: Fagus grandifolia - Quercus (alba, velutina, prinus) / Kalmia latifolia Forest
Scientific Name Translated: American Beech – (White Oak, Black Oak, Chestnut Oak) / Mountain Laurel Forest
Classification Code: CEGL006919

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Why Names Sometimes Change

Natural communities change over time, as does the scientific understanding of those communities. Sometimes important distinctions are discovered within a single natural community. When these distinctions are notable enough, two natural communities, rather than one, are then recognized. In such cases, a new name is added to the National Vegetation Classification.

In other cases, the opposite may be true: distinctions between two natural communities are discovered to be less important as more information is collected, and the two natural communities are lumped together under one name.

Either situation may impact future maps of a location.

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Mapping Natural Communities

Ecologists map natural communities as a way of learning more about where each occurs, what its extent and range is, and how common or rare it is. (For an example of a map of natural communities, see the interactive map of Rock Creek Park.)

Usually, there’s not a sharp and obvious boundary between one natural community and another, even though the map makes it look like there is. The area of transition between two natural communities is called an ecotone, and it’s an area that may contain a combination of features from more than one natural community. Don't be surprised to find yourself in one of these transitional areas quite often as you hike up and down hills on a trail.

It's helpful to know the "classification and mapping rules." In general, we have defined and mapped natural communities that are naturally occurring in patches larger than about 1 acre. So as you walk a wooded trail, you might find a little forest seep that is obviously different from the forest around it, but is not classified or mapped because of its small size.

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Naming and Mapping Ecological Systems

Ecological systems are groups of natural communities that occur in similar landscapes. Like natural communities, ecological systems have their own standardized classification system, called the International Terrestrial Ecological System Classification (or ITESC)4  (See 5 for the U.S. subset.) Each ecological system is given a unique official name and code. For this website, we’ve also used nicknames that are abbreviated or inverted versions of the official name. The names and code are listed at the bottom of each ecological system page.


Abbreviated Name: Dry Oak-Pine Forest (Central Appalachian)
Official Name: Central Appalachian Dry Oak-Pine Forest
Ecological System Code: CES202.591

Ecological systems can be mapped just like natural communities can. (For an example of a map of ecological systems, go to the interactive map of Rock Creek Park. Under Layers On/Off, switch the main data layer to Ecological Systems.) 

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Next Steps

Learn how ecologists assess which natural communities and ecological systems are vulnerable to elimination, and which ones are secure. See Assessing Vulnerability.

Review the differences between natural communities, semi-natural communities, not-so-natural communities, and ecological systems in Seeing the Patterns.

Start exploring natural communities in a park! Go to Parks & Places, and pick a featured park.

Or, learn more about ecology in Ecology Basics.