What is a Natural Community?
In natural settings, plants do not live in random patterns in the landscape. Rather they tend to group into communities. Those “Natural Communities” have patterns and those patterns have been researched for decades by botanists and ecologists. This website attempts to translate that descriptive research into practical guidance.
Certain plants consistently grow together in the same or similar environments because they share a preference or tolerance for such things as:
protection from or exposure to sun, weather events, fire, and other natural processes.
Some plants can only grow in certain environments with other types of plants buffering or protecting them from direct sunlight or other features of the environment.
In each natural community, the plants, animals, geology, natural processes, water, and many other factors are related in somewhat predictable ways that allow us to classify and name these communities.
Each natural community functions as essential habitat for various wildlife species. Many animals—such as wide-ranging deer and adaptable racoons—live and travel among different natural communities. Others are dependent on specific natural communities, like the beaver or kingfisher who live in floodplain forests.
Historic human manipulation—like logging or plowing—or severe natural disturbance can disrupt or destroy a natural community. As the land recovers (for decades or even centuries), its composition differs from that of a natural community. Even when largely composed of native plants, what initially regrows are not long-standing communities, but what may be called successional or semi-natural forests. They will give way (or succeed) to other, more natural communities as natural processes take their course.
Forests regrowing in the aftermath of severe disturbance of the soil and/or vegetation display telltale signs. As the vegetation in one of these areas changes over time, the wildlife also changes. For instance, grassland birds in an abandoned field eventually give way to woodland birds as the field succeeds to forest.
A major problem for natural communities that are disturbed in today's world is the increasing probability that they will be colonized in large or small part by non-native invasive plants. This is changing the former healthy pattern of succession of communities.
Ecological Systems: The Broader Landscape Context
Ecologists group natural communities that occur in similar physical settings together into groups called ecological systems. For instance, think of a large river you know well. Along that river are distinct natural communities—maybe a shady silver maple forest along one low bank, a sun-baked bouldery area with a few shrubby, stunted river birch along another stretch, an American sycamore and black walnut forest with nodding Virginia bluebells at a particular bend, and a half-submerged patch of American water-willow elsewhere. Though each community has a very different feel to it, it’s not hard to define the unifying theme—they all occur along the same river. You could trace where they collectively occur on a map. That sort of broader ecological context (such as Central Appalachian Stream and Riparian) is an ecological system.
More Detail on Naming Natural Communities
ENC -- this page drew heavily from the Explore Natural Communities website