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Native prairie ~ photo by Thomas G. Barnes

Natural Heritage Program

Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves (KNP) staff botanists, zoologists, ecologists, land managers, and data managers work with others to protect our natural heritage and educate Kentuckians about its importance. Information on rare and sensitive plants, animals, ecological communities, and other natural features of Kentucky is maintained as part of a data management system known as the Kentucky Natural Heritage Program (KYNHP). The KYNHP works in partnership with NatureServe, an international natural heritage network. This network includes Natural Heritage Programs and Conservation Data Centers across Canada, the United States and Latin America, all building on the same data collection methodology. These programs and data centers collectively represent the largest ongoing effort to collect standardized data on endangered plants, animals and ecosystems. Kentucky's database is updated continuously and is used to set state, national and global priorities for the preservation of natural diversity. KNP biologists continually gather this information during their field work, review of scientific literature, and from contacts with other agencies and experts in the field. As a result, the Kentucky Natural Heritage Program is the most complete and current biological database of its kind available.  The Kentucky Natural Heritage Program includes a botany program, zoology program, and an ecology program. 

Biological and Ecological Inventories:

Biological and ecological field studies are conducted to gather information about the distribution, abundance and life history of flora, fauna and natural communities in Kentucky. Specialists in aquatic fauna, terrestrial vertebrates, invertebrates, plants (including lichens) and natural communities conduct studies to determine which species and natural communities in Kentucky are the most vulnerable to decline and eventual extinction. The results of the inventories conducted by commission scientists as well as others are the primary source for information for the Kentucky Natural Heritage Database. This information is also the basis for most of KNP activities including development of the state listing of rare species, identification of sites of biological significance (and eventually nature preserves) and public and technical educational materials.

Botany Program

The KNP Botany Program is responsible for inventorying and monitoring lichens, mosses, seed plants and ferns.  

There is an estimated 2,850 native plant species (excluding algae) found in Kentucky. While this number is not high compared to other states (30th in the nation), the Kentucky flora is nevertheless unique and a melding of five different regional floras. The floras of the Appalachian Mountains, Gulf Coastal floodplain, Mississippi river floodplain, and the Great Plains, as well as a few species from northern forests, all influence the makeup of the state’s flora.  Each native plant occupies an ecological niche influenced by factors including soil, light, and water availability. Plant by plant, species adapt to different conditions and sort into natural communities across the landscape.

Ecology Program

The KNP Ecology Program is responsible for inventorying and monitoring the highest quality natural communities.  A natural community is an area containing an aquatic or terrestrial ecosystem that has essentially retained, or recovered, its pre-European American settlement condition. These areas contain the least disturbed examples of natural communities and often harbor rare plant and animal species. Nearly all of Kentucky’s pristine natural areas have disappeared due to land conversion and land use practices. KNP seeks to include an example of each of Kentucky’s unique natural communities in the state nature preserve system.

KNP ecologists use a process called Natural Areas Inventory (NAI) to locate those few natural areas that remain intact. NAI is conducted on a county-by-county basis. This procedure begins with interpretation of aerial photos, topographic maps, satellite images, and other data sources. Using this information, sites with the highest potential are then chosen and visited. After all of the potential natural areas within a county have been checked, an inventory of the site is done. The best sites are then targeted for some degree of protection or recognition with permission of the landowner. 

           Natural Communities of Kentucky:

KNP monitors exemplary occurrences of the following ecological communities.   monitors exemplary occurrences of the following ecological communities.  Exemplary ecological communities are relatively undisturbed or have recovered sufficiently from previous disturbances and have the flora and fauna that represents, to the best of our knowledge, the ecological communities that existed in Kentucky at the time of European colonization.  This classification was last updated May 2009. 


Zoology Program

The KNP zoology program is responsible for inventorying and monitoring invertebrates and vertebrates. The program is divided into three primary sections: terrestrial zoology, aquatic zoology and invertebrate zoology. 

Invertebrates are animals without backbones and include such familiar groups as insects, mussels, snails, and spiders. More than 70 percent of all known species in the world and approximately 99 percent of all known animals are invertebrates. Vertebrates (animals with backbones) are the largest, most conspicuous, and complex of animals. They are also the most highly evolved animals and include fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Although the overall number of vertebrate species accounts for only about 1 percent of the world’s animals, their diversity and life histories are much more completely known than those of invertebrates. Field surveys by KNP biologists range from stream seining to light trapping to mist-netting.