Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Conterminous United States

Scientific Investigations Map 3106

Prepared in collaboration with NatureServe
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The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), with support from NatureServe, has modeled the potential distribution of 419 terrestrial ecosystems for the conterminous United States using a comprehensive biophysical stratification approach that identifies distinct biophysical environments and associates them with known vegetation distributions (Sayre and others, 2009). This standardized ecosystem mapping effort used an ecosystems classification developed by NatureServe (Comer and others, 2003). The ecosystem mapping methodology was developed for South America (Sayre and others, 2008) and is now being implemented globally (Sayre and others, 2007). The biophysical stratification approach is based on mapping the major structural components of ecosystems (land surface forms, topographic moisture potential, surficial lithology, isobioclimates and biogeographic regions) and then spatially combining them to produce a set of unique biophysical environments. These physically distinct areas are considered as the fundamental structural units ('building blocks') of ecosystems, and are subsequently aggregated and labeled using the NatureServe classification. The structural footprints were developed from the geospatial union of several base layers including biogeographic regions, isobioclimates (Cress and others, 2009a), land surface forms (Cress and others, 2009b), topographic moisture potential (Cress and others, 2009c), and surficial lithology (Cress and others, in press). Among the 49,168 unique structural footprint classes that resulted from the union, 13,482 classes met a minimum pixel count threshold (20,000 pixels) and were aggregated into 419 NatureServe ecosystems using a semiautomated labeling process based on rule-set formulations for attribution of each ecosystem. The resulting ecosystems are those that are expected to occur based on the combination of the bioclimate, biogeography, and geomorphology. Where land use by humans has not altered land cover, natural vegetation assemblages are expected to occur, and these are described in the ecosystems classification. The map does not show the distribution of urban and agricultural areas - these will be masked out in subsequent analyses to depict the current land cover in addition to the potential distribution of natural ecosystems. This map depicts the smoothed and generalized image of the terrestrial ecosystems dataset. Additional information about this map and any data developed for the ecosystems modeling of the conterminous United States is available online at:

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Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Conterminous United States
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Map
Series number:
Version 1.0
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center
Map Sheet: 45 x 35 inches
Albers Eqal Area Conic
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