Identifying Natural Communities

A key challenge to use the Natural Communities research is identifying Natural Communities in the field. This challenge exists even in mature stands of largely intact natural areas. In local parks and natural areas, very few spots have not been farmed, forested, or otherwise altered. In some cases, destruction of the original natural habitat has been so complete that few clues may exist as to what was present originally (this is common when new neighborhoods are constructed).

One of the reasons this website is primarily intended for ecological restoration purposes, instead of for homeowner use, is that the identification of the existing Natural Community is easier in park land and other open areas. In these cases, it makes sense to make the investment to define the Natural Community—either existing or intended.

Key Concepts to Aid in Identification


Summary Descriptions Across the Nine Communities

A summary that contains high level information to identify each Natural Community is available in one file is available for download and use. Comments are welcomed!

Community Summaries across communities.pptx

Natural Community Misfits

Sometimes what you're seeing doesn't look like any of the natural communities that should be present locally. Why?

1. Transitions (Ecotones). Usually, there’s not a sharp and obvious boundary between one natural community and another, even though a vegetation 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.

2. Forest Edges. Edge communities at the edge of a forest typically have many species not found in the interior. These communities on the edges are diverse and have not been the focus of the Natural Community work. Unfortunately, given the fragmentation of land around urban areas, edge habitats are quite prevalent and are great at attracting damaging invasives. Research and guidance is sparse in addressing edge habitats and is desperately needed. In the meantime, eliminating the invasives at the edges will slow spread into the interior of the area and is generally difficult but highly productive overall.

3. Successional Communities. Some areas are still growing back from historic land disturbances (say, farming, intense fire, or unusually heavy storm damage). these areas are called "Successional Forests". For purposes of ecological restoration, a challenge is to identify which true Natural Community is the later stage of succession so as to assist in the process going forward.

4. Mapping limits. Rules limit how detailed maps are. Most maps don't show tiny patches of unique vegetation (say, under 1 acre or 1/2 hectare).

A transitional area between Oak - Beech / Heath Forest and Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest at Rock Creek Park in D.C.

Photographer: Sam Sheline

"Dichotomous Key" to use in Community Identification

A "dichotomous key" approach to identifying the common natural communities in Northern Virginia is available for download and use. Comments are welcomed!


Key to Natural Communities of NOVA v.3.pdf