Welcome! Explore Natural Communities will help you see the world through the lenses of a naturalist. You’ll learn how to identify natural communities—predictable combinations of plants and animals that occur in predictable physical settings. In so doing, you’ll learn how to read the landscape—to notice patterns and draw conclusions. Looking at the world this way will open up a whole new dimension. It will enrich the time you spend outdoors—especially at the parks featured in this website!

Explore this page:

Where to Begin?

There are four main ways to dive into this information-rich website. Pick any one that interests you:

  • Explore a particular park.

Click on Parks & Places in the menu at the top of the page. Choose Rock Creek Park to learn more about the Park and its trails, natural communities, natural history, ecological threats, and management/stewardship.

  • Explore the park's Map Viewer.

Anywhere inside Parks & Places that you see the blue globe Map Viewer Icon, you can click on it to go to a Map Viewer. You can use the interactive Map Viewer to find a park's trails, good places to see certain natural communities, points of interest, picnic areas, bathrooms, historic sites, soils, geology, and much more. You can use it to plan a hike through the park, and print out a personalized report with a zoomable map and a list of the features you’ve chosen to highlight on your hike.

To get the most out of the map viewer, explore the Map Viewer Tutorial.

  • Explore a natural community.

Click on Natural Communities in the menu at the top of the page. Once there, choose a natural community—say the Chestnut Oak / Mountain Laurel Forest—to read a short description about it. Then follow a link to explore how that natural community looks in a particular park—say the Chestnut Oak / Mountain Laurel Forest in Rock Creek Park.

  • Explore the basics of ecology.

Click on Ecology Basics in the menu at the top of the page to learn more about how natural communities are classified, named, and mapped. You can also learn more about how plants, animals, physical setting, and natural processes are all the ingredients of natural communities. There’s also a section on different factors that threaten the health of natural communities—from non-native invasive plants to fire-suppression—and what can be done to address those factors.

For specific website tips customized to different audiences—park managers and interpreters, teachers, neighbors, visitors, and researchers—be sure to visit Tips for Users. Or check out Frequently Asked Questions.

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Key to Clickable Icons

Each of the following icons provides more information in a pop-up window or takes you to another part of the website. Here's what each one means:

Pop-up Window Icons

Click for an interesting "Ecobit"—a side note, a fuller explanation, a short ecological story or fun fact that's relevant to the topic on the page.

Hover over this icon (don't click) for the meaning of a heading or term.

Click for information for a particular plant species (a photo, scientific name, global conservation status, descriptive paragraph, and links to more information and photos).
Navigation Icons
Click to go to the Map Viewer section of Explore Natural Communities.
Click to go to a tutorial on the Map Viewer.

Click to go to the section of Explore Natural Communities that focuses on a particular park or place.
Click to go to the Compare Communities page, where you can view characteristics of natural communities side-by-side in a table.


Click to go to the website of NatureServe Explorer for more in-depth information on a particular species or natural community.


Click to go to Flickr for a larger view of a photo with caption and credits, or to browse more NatureServe photos (not necessarily related).
         Click to go to the website for NatureServe.


Click to go to the website for the National Park Service.

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Quick Tips

Did you know that by right-clicking on a link, you can open the new page in a different tab or window?

  • Use the tabs at the top of the screen to go to other sections of the website. Once you get into a section, a maroon-colored menu on the left will help you navigate within that section.
  • Click on photos of plants and animals in gallery displays to enlarge the photo and read a caption.
  • Check out the green Learn More box in the left sidebar for related information on this website, or on other websites.
  • To print, you can copy and paste content from the website into Word, which will preserve the hotlinks. Or you can choose "print" from your browser menu.

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