Naming Natural Communities

Natural Communities Classification

The natural communities described by name on this website are among thousands in the U.S. National Vegetation Classification (USNVC). 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. 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.

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.

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

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.