Why Are Endemic Species Essential to Our Ecosystem?
Many people know the difference between endangered and extinct species but what is meant by the term endemic species and how do these terms coincide?
The world is full of lonesome, solitary animals. Indeed, despite the fact that we humans are social creatures, many members of our own species are quite solitary as well. Endemic species are plants or animals that exist only in one geographic region. They can be endemic to large or small areas, to a particular continent, or even a single island. As a result, many of these endemic species, particularly the ones that dwell in a very limited range, are quite lonesome.
Whether plant or animal, many of these species have found themselves endangered in recent years due to human interaction. Climate change, overhunting, and especially habitat destruction have left them even less space to live than they previously had. But the slow demise of these creatures due to humanity may only be a symptom of a much more serious problem.
What is an endemic species?
As stated earlier, endemic species are those that live or grow in a very specific and very limited piece of territory on this planet. Changes in climate or habitat — often brought on by the climate crisis — can greatly threaten endemic species, bringing them closer to endangerment or extinction.
These species can be a rare breed of bird, a giant, long-lived tortoise, a rare flower that blooms on the slopes of a volcano, or the sole rhinoceros within a South Pacific Island chain.
They can be a type of tree that only grows in the heart of the Congo or they might have been a dull-witted, slow-moving bird that once populated only the island of Mauritius. Whatever the location, these endemic species are unique to that place and perhaps that is why they are all in so much trouble.
What are some examples of endemic species?
If you were to look through, say, a children’s encyclopedia of animals, you might come across a great many endemic species and not know it. There are many animals that are only found in one location in the world. The koala, the Tasmanian devil, the Javan rhinoceros, and the emperor penguin are only a few examples. These are singular species, of course, but there are even whole scientific classifications of animals that include many species unique to a region.
Take for instance the many varieties of lemur that dwell only on the African island of Madagascar. All are different, with different adaptations, diets, and behaviors, and yet all of them exist only on that island. The same is true for many of the Galapagos finches studied and catalogued by Charles Darwin.
Why are endemic species important to the environment?
Apart from the obvious fact that these creatures are endangered, recent studies have shown that endemic species are more important to the innate biodiversity of a region than was previously thought. A recent study held at the University of Tennessee, in conjunction with the University of Tasmania in Australia, revealed why these endemic species are so important to the biosphere.
The study examined endemic eucalyptus found in Tasmania, and discovered that not only did these rare species develop unique characteristics to survive, but those characteristics directly impacted the survival of other species within that ecosystem. Eucalyptus, in particular, evolved to have thick leaves that can withstand long bouts of drought and can conserve energy, but that isn’t all they have going for them.
They are also lacking in nutrition and hard to digest, which makes them unappealing to most herbivores, except for koalas, whose own specialized diets allow them to survive solely on this plant. In this way, both of these endemic species coexist in a significant way relative to one another within their ecosystem. If one were to go extinct, in time, the other could be either affected or decimated by the event.
Why are endemic species important to us?
Besides the fact that many of the endemic animal and plant species are unique and beautiful amongst their fellow lifeforms, their presence in this world is often a reminder of what came before. They are important lessons in terms of our historical and ecological missteps.
On island chains like Hawaii, several species of unique birds will never be seen again. Similar events occurred in many distant biomes, where the introduction of non-native or invasive species have destroyed or seriously impacted endemic species.
If we are not careful, we will repeat these mistakes. It doesn’t just happen via imperialism anymore, either. Each day, whole swaths of the Amazon rainforest are chopped away, thereby eliminating an untold number of plant and animal species that may have only existed in that several hundred acres of land. Who knows what wonders have been lost in our quest for farmland, lumber, and palm oil? And who knows what the consequences of never having known those wonders might be?