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Global Ecosystem Typology

An initiative from the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, May 2018

  Fig 1. Global Ecosystem Typology: Key Contribution Areas.

The conservation and management of ecosystems has never been more central to the future of biodiversity and human well-being on Earth. The CBD Aichi targets and UN Sustainable Development Goals mandate global action that depends directly or indirectly on ecosystem assessment. Information infrastructure to support these global policy initiatives is developing rapidly, including the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EEA), and listing criteria for both the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems (RLE) and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA), among several other tools. All initiatives, their overarching policy framework, and several other activities require a standardized, globally consistent, spatially explicit typology and terminology for managing the world’s ecosystems and their services.

Why do we need another ecological classification?

Existing global-scale ecological classifications were designed to meet different needs, not our current demand for ecosystem assessment. Several of these existing classifications have characteristics that are relevant to ecosystem assessment and management. The combination of intrinsic and utilitarian motives to conserve and manage ecosystems demands a typology that represents both ecological processes and the identity of their characteristic biota. Serving the policy needs requires scalable, systematic and mappable classification that defines ecosystem types consistently across the world. When reviewed, none of the 20 existing global-scale ecological classifications met these requirements. While many provided a useful representation of biogeographic patterns, most failed to incorporate ecological processes and functions and lacked a truly global scope encompassing all (terrestrial, freshwater and marine) components of the biosphere within a single framework. Representation of ecological processes is essential if a typology is to support generalizations about ecosystem responses to environmental change and management action. It is therefore critical to natural capital accounting, adaptive ecosystem management and sustainable management of ecosystem services, all of which depend on ecosystem functions.

IUCN's global typology for ecosystems

IUCN is leading a global initiative to develop a new functional typology for ecosystems. It differs from the IUCN Habitats Classification Scheme, designed to characterize habitats of individual species rather than ecosystem processes. This IUCN global initiative will provide a global framework for reporting on Aichi targets, Sustainable Development Goals, and natural capital accounting, as well as for structuring global risk assessments for the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. The development process began in April 2017, with an international workshop at King’s College London, supported by the PLuS Alliance. Development continues, with a global network of ecosystem experts. Is expected to have the first version, detailing the upper levels of a classification hierarchy, available by the end of 2018. Wide exposure will promote testing and refinements, which will be incorporated into subsequent versions and extension to local levels. Global-scale spatial modeling and remote sensing will enable the distribution of functional groups of ecosystems to be mapped, with work planned to commence in 2019, subject to funding. 

Fig 2. Draft hierarchical framework, showing six levels of organization, founded on a theoretical framework incorporating ecosystem functions and processes.                            (Source: Keith et al. in prep.)

Key elements of the new typology

The new typology includes key elements which support a diversity of applications and users. These include: an explicit theoretical framework centred on a new model of ecosystem assembly; a scalable hierarchy of units to support applications across global to local scales; standard terminology and definitions to promote consistency; and a set of systematic profiles for each ecosystem functional group describing its key ecological traits, functional processes and global distribution.

The theoretical framework is critical to ensuring classification robustness with a changing knowledge base plus the flexibility to accommodate new information. The hierarchical framework integrates both top-down approaches, essential for global consistency, and bottom-up approaches, to incorporate established ecological classifications, already in use and incorporated into policy infrastructure in regional, national and sub-national levels (e.g. EUNIS habitat classification). This is crucial, as important conservation action occurs at local levels, where most expertise resides.


Fig 3. Example descriptive profiles for Tropical rainforest and Polar tundra ecosystem functional groups (Source: Keith et al. in prep).

Future applications 

Natural capital accounting could be directly linked with Red List data on risk status, extent and condition by aligning these ecological attributes with the traits used to define ecosystem functional groups (level 3 in the proposed ecosystem hierarchical framework). This would also enable conceptual models (developed as part of Red List assessments) to inform the design of management strategies to protect natural capital and reduce risks of ecosystem collapse. 

Further information:

Contact IUCN Red List of Ecosystems Programme Officer 

[email protected]

IUCN Red List of Ecosystems


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