Classification > Ecological Systems > Ecological System Description Contents

Ecological System Description Contents

Ecological system descriptions contain the following fields:

General Description

This section summarizes the general distribution, environment, and vegetation characteristic of this system in Colorado.

Diagnostic Characteristics

The unique physical aspect(s) of the system separating it from systems similar in composition or distribution.

Similar Systems

A description of similar ecological systems and the characteristics that separate them.


The distribution of the system on the landscape. The global range of the system is provided as well as specific elevation and geographic ranges within Colorado.

Ecological System Distribution

Mapped density of the system by 7.5 minute (1:24,000) USGS quad. Note: the system may occur in areas that are not shown, but those occurrences may be too small to have been classified from satellite imagery (coming soon).

Spatial Pattern

Ecological systems tend to have distinct spatial patterns: matrix, large patch, small patch, and linear. Most wetland systems are small patch and most riparian systems are linear, following river corridors. Grasslands and forests, which cover extensive areas, are generally considered to occur as a matrix, with large and small patches of other ecological systems (e.g., wetlands, badlands, wet meadows) embedded within them.

Depending on the spatial pattern, ecological systems will respond differently to disturbance. For example, matrix systems like grasslands usually have a wide tolerance for drought, fire, insects, etc., and disturbances tend to be confined to small areas. These are the most persistent kinds of ecological systems, as well as the ones that often cover extensive and contiguous areas. Large patch systems usually have a more narrow range of tolerance for disturbance, and events like fire or insect outbreaks can substantially alter the extent of a particular patch. Small patch systems usually cover between one and 100 acres. These systems can be completely eliminated by disturbance, and natural successional patterns may cause them to shift from one type to another. Linear systems are also susceptible to disturbance, particularly human-caused disturbance.


Elevational range, climate, soils and landform characteristics characteristic of most occurrences of the system.


The plant communities and species that are frequently seen within this ecological system. Not all communities and species will occur in every occurrence of a system, especially when the system occurs across several environmental gradients.

Plant Associations

Vegetation associations (i.e., plant communities) are assemblages of species that respond similarly to climatic, soil, topographic, geological, hydrologic, historical and other environmental conditions. Associations are a finer level of classification than ecological systems and are the finest level of the U.S. National Vegetation Classification System (USNVC). Any given occurrence of an ecological system can contain several plant associations. Because the ecological system classification is a hierarchical component of the USNVC, plant association can occur in more than one ecological system. For example, water sedge (Carex aquatilis) herbaceous vegetation can be found in both the Rocky Mountain Alpine-Montane Wet Meadow system and the Rocky Mountain Subalpine-Montane Fen system.

Associated Animal Species

Animal species most commonly association with the system are listed.

Dynamic Processes

The environmental forces (e.g., fire, flood, wind, human activities) that drive the development, distribution and succession of the ecological system.


Key strategies to maintain the dynamic processes governing the system.

Original Concept Authors

The Heritage Network individuals or group who first described this system across its entire range.

Colorado Version Authors

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program ecologists who developed the Colorado-specific descriptions for the system.

Version Date

The date of the last substantial revision to the entry.


Sources used to write the description.