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Ecological Communities

Shaver's Mountain RhododendronEcological communities are groups of organisms (plants, animals, fungi, and microbes) which live together in a particular physical environment. Conservation of ecological communities is important because they are habitat for a multitude of common and poorly known organisms that are not the focus of species conservation. Conservation of entire communities also maintains processes and food pathways necessary for survival of all their members.

A spruce forest is an example of an ecological community that occurs in the highest elevation mountains of West Virginia. Members of this community include spruce trees, rhododendron and mountain holly bushes, mosses and liverworts, truffles (a kind of underground fungus), insects, warblers, and flying squirrels. Evolutionary adaptations and food pathways link these organisms. Mosses and liverworts dominate the forest floor because leaves do not cover them as they would in a deciduous forest. Insects feed on the trees and are in turn a primary food source for warblers. Spruce trees depend on a symbiotic relationship with the fungi for nutrition and water uptake and the truffles in turn comprise the main food source for flying squirrels. Conservation of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, an endangered species, is best achieved by conserving the entire spruce forest community.

What other types of ecological communities occur in West Virginia? Much of our land supports deciduous forests of various sorts. These range from oak forests that grow on dry, acidic soils of upper slopes and ridges to extremely diverse "mixed mesophytic" forests that grow on enriched soils of lower slopes and coves. Forests of river floodplains include different types dominated by silver maple, sycamore and ash, or pin oak depending on flooding frequency and energy. Natural open communities are more rare in the state and they often host rare species; these include woodlands, barrens, and glades on dry limestone and shale outcrops, and herbaceous wetlands and riverscour prairies associated with hydrological features. Conifer swamps dominated by balsam fir, hemlock, or spruce; shrub swamps dominated by alder or buttonbush; successional forests dominated by pines or aspen; seeps and springs; boggy fens; heath barrens and boulderfields; beaches and riverside flatrock; cliffs and talus slopes; caves and overhangs; rivers, streams and beaver ponds; the list seems to go on and on. But we need to make this list and make sure that quality examples of all types are conserved. Bazzania Trilobata

Terrestrial ecological communities are classified based on vegetation because plants are the least transient, most observable, and arguably the dominant life form in these systems. The West Virginia Natural Heritage Program is developing a vegetation classification to use as the basis for tracking and ranking occurrences of all types of terrestrial ecological communities in the state. Our classification will be consistent with the U. S. National Vegetation Classification, which is maintained by NatureServe, a nonprofit organization providing biodiversity information for conservation. The National Vegetation Classification is a hierarchical system that uses physiognomy (evergreen vs. deciduous, forest vs. woodland vs. grassland) to define the highest levels and plant species composition to define the lowest levels. The lowest, or finest, classification units are called associations, and these are named after the dominant and diagnostic plant species in the community. Species that characterize different "strata" (tree canopy, shrub, herbaceous, and bryophyte/lichen layers) are separated by a forward slash.  For example, the Picea rubens / Rhododendron maximum forest association has a tree canopy dominated by red spruce (Picea rubens) over a dense shrub layer dominated by great rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum, our state flower). In a different spruce association, the Picea rubens - (Tsuga canadensis) / Rhododendron maximum / Sphagnum spp. Forest, hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is sometimes found in the tree canopy, and the presence of peatmosses (Sphagnum spp.) in the bryophyte layer are diagnostic of a wetland site.

There are currently 146 associations described in the National Vegetation Classification that are attributed to West Virginia. A table summarizing this West Virginia subset is provided here as a PDF file, however, this document should not yet be considered complete or completely accurate. We are providing this document so more people can become familiar with these classification efforts and concepts, and to encourage your observations and comments. It can serve as a starting point and framework for development of a West Virginia vegetation classification based on quantitative plot data. More information on the National Vegetation Classification and individual associations is available on the NatureServe website (www.natureserve.org). Use their on-line database Explorer to query the classification using dominant or diagnostic species that appear in the association name (Picea rubens or red spruce) or by location (West Virginia).

Quantitative plot data will form the basis for the West Virginia vegetation classification. Information collected from plots includes environmental data (slope, aspect, geology, soils, hydrology, etc…), floristic composition and structure (complete lists of plant species present and estimates of their abundance in each vegetation layer), and location (usually collected with a global positioning system). We currently have data from approximately 1,000 plots from different parts of the state. These plots represent a large part of the ecological diversity of some of our state's important conservation areas, but are far from complete for the entire state.

The application of a vegetation classification is to identify and rank occurrences of all types of terrestrial ecological communities in the state. The West Virginia Natural Heritage Program tracks all occurrences of rare community types and high quality examples of all types. Rarity is determined from both state and global perspectives. The "quality" of an occurrence is determined by its size, condition, and landscape context. Standards for these parameters need to be established for each individual community type. We maintain electronic tabular and spatial databases and manual files on occurrences of ecological communities and provide this information to government agencies, conservation organizations, researchers, educators, developers, and private landowners to inform and encourage conservation of biodiversity in our state.

Blackburnian Warbler

The West Virginia subset of The National Vegetation Classification
(PDF format, 78.6KB)

Click here to get acrobat reader (You will need Acrobat Reader to view this file)

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