The Natural Communities of Massachusetts
Many ecologists now use the term natural community when categorizing ecosystems, in recognition that there are many different types of organisms that affect the characteristics of the system. But because of their importance as primary producers, natural communities are still largely classified or named by the dominant plant species present.
The Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) has described 106 natural communities found in our state. These are divided into three main categories:
- Terrestrial communities that are not significantly impacted by standing or moving water, like forests and grasslands.
- Palustrine areas that are shaped by the presence of fresh water, including wetlands, pond shores, and river floodplains.
- Estuarine environments where salt water mixes with fresh water, from shorelines to tidal shrublands and salt marshes.
NHESP’s natural community factsheets provide an excellent introductory manual to this diversity of ecosystems across the state. The sheets give us detailed plant lists for each community, outline the geological or topographical features that shape it, and discuss the habitat value it provides for associated fauna. Helpfully, they also list publicly accessible areas of the state where each community is found, giving us all the opportunity to experience them firsthand. Go and explore!