The definition of endemic

On inaturalist the definition given for endemic is “native and occurs nowhere else”.
While from an evolutionary biology and conservation point of view, the definition of endemic as “the native range of this taxon is restricted to this place” makes more sense as this translates the species evolutionary history.

The problems with the definition used on inaturalist are:

  1. Endemic species are frequently introduced outside their native range, e.g. Speleomantes italicus is endemic to Italy but has been introduced in Germany: so it occurs somewhere else than in Italy.
  2. Taxa which have been extirpated in most of their native range and are therefore restricted to a specific place. This is the case of the Asian Cheetah which is native and occurs nowhere else than in Iran. But is not endemic to Iran since it had a much broader range.

For me the bigger issue with the term “endemic” is that the geographic area covered by the term varies enormously.

Something can be endemic to a very large area like Madagascar, or California, or South Africa, or the Andes, or North America or to a small area like (for example) the island I work on that’s about 330 square km and has a bunch of endemic species, or something can be endemic to a sliver of rock only a few hectares in area, or a single tiny pond.

The differences in the geographic range covered by the term “endemic” is a bit silly.

Getting back to your specific examples though, I’d suggest that endemic is the correct term for the Asian Cheetah as species change over time (for any number of reasons) and it is currently native to only one place. If you start going into the history side (depending on how far back you go) then nothing is endemic to anywhere as species move around and change.

The key is “native to”, so in the case of your other example, of Speleomantes italicus it didn’t get to its new range on its own, so “endemic” still seems appropriate.

It’s a bit similar to Delonix regia the tree is native to western Madagascar, technically endemic to the island, specifically to the dry deciduous forests, and is serious danger of going extinct in its native range due to destruction of its habitat, but it is a popular ornamental tree globally, so it is very common outside of its native range.

We tend, rightly or wrongly, to categorize many species by how they got to a new area. if it was something they did without the assistance of humans, then it’s placed in one category, but if they moved with the assistance of humans then they fall into a different category.


There’s too much obsession with endemism within political boundaries, which are drawn on the landscape and ecologically meaningless. This is why plants endemic to Great Lakes shorelines and found nowhere else on Earth (Iris lacustris, Tetraneuris herbacea, Cirsium pitcheri, etc) are not usually considered endemic - because they cross the political boundaries of the US and Canada and their Great Lakes states and provinces.

Endemism on a watershed or biome scale is much more interesting but instead we give plants gold stars for only being found in one country or another.


There was a discussion about the status of Oryctolagus cuniculus here as someone has set it as endemic to the Mediterranean region
It’s is now set as “native”

1 Like

endemic to South Africa - would be a bit silly.

I am in Cape Town, South-Western Cape, a tiny corner with a mediterranean climate. Within this area we have endemics - a Serruria which grows only on the slopes above Simon’s Town.

1 Like

I completely agree, but you see endemic terminology like that all the time.


@earthknight, @wdvanhem Yes the word endemic makes more sense at a small scale (e.g. Kilimanjaro , Lake Tanganyika, Madagascar) than at the scale of Africa for instance. Sadly, the places on inaturalist are rather political entities than natural regions so many endemic are not recognized as such.


Getting back to your specific examples though, I’d suggest that endemic is the correct term for the Asian Cheetah as species change over time (for any number of reasons) and it is currently native to only one place. If you start going into the history side (depending on how far back you go) then nothing is endemic to anywhere as species move around and change.

The point that I was raising is not how long ago it had undergone a drastic range reduction, but that this range reduction is entirely due to anthropogenic means.

There are relict species that had a large distribution in the past and have undergone a drastic range reduction due to natural phenomena such as climate or competition (e.g. Rupicapra pyrenaica ssp. ornata, Liquidambar orientalis). But their native range (i.e. the range which is the product of natural phenomena) is restricted to a specific place so they can be qualified as endemic.

@annemirdl Yes I did place the European rabbit as endemic to the Mediterranean region. They are extreme examples of endemic species that have been massively introduced elsewhere:

These cases are not different from Speleomantes italicus but the extent of their introductions immediately raises concern if one want to qualify them as endemic.


An endemic is a taxa unique to a place or region, occurring in a limited area, not naturally found outside of it. Depending on the adopted criterion, the endemic may be a taxa with a range smaller than a specific area (e.g. 10,000 km2) or a taxa whose range is within the limits of a specific geographical area or habitat type. Species that occur mainly in a specific geographical zone or area, but extend slightly beyond this area and occur in close proximity to their main area of occurrence, are called sub-endemic species. Endemic can also be defined as taxa higher than the species if their occurrence is actually limited to a specific, relatively small area (islands, mountain ranges or lakes) …


This topic was automatically closed 60 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.

So I had a discussion with @jdmore who advocated that, according to inaturalist definition of endemism, if an endemic species is introduced outside its native range it loses its endemic status since it does occur somewhere else. For me, this is a too literal interpretation of “native and occurs nowhere else” which should be interpreted as “nowhere else natively

Anyway I think this definition should be something like “the native range of this taxon is restricted to [this place name]cf. my first post.


Instead of trying to bend the existing definition of Endemic to an interpretation that does not fit its current very plain language, I suggest that you submit a Feature Request (using the required template) to change the language of the definition to something like, “native here and nowhere else.” Then the community can properly debate the pros and cons of the proposal, and the iNat staff will perhaps weigh in with a decision one way or the other.

Otherwise, debating it here will likely just encourage different users to apply Endemic establishment means inconsistently throughout the site, according to their personal favorite “interpretation.” Unless and until iNaturalist staff agree to make a change, I think we all need to follow the plain language of the current definitions, and not read anything else into them:

Any definition is fine so long as the range in concern is defined by geographical boundaries (eg. Borneo or "the Sulawesi subregion) rather than political boundaries (eg. “Malaysia” or “Indonesia”), because the latter are a human construct that wasn’t intended for making sense of natural landscapes

Of course, this thread is only to share views on this definition.
I just wanted to make a point and to ask your opinions on it:

Endemism is a natural phenomenon, humans can neither destroy (by introduction) nor create (by extirpation) an endemic species.

1 Like

Endemism is a human concept whether it is applied to natural geographic boundaries or to political boundaries. Humans decide which geographic boundaries to use, just as they decide which political boundaries to use, when calling something endemic.

While calling something endemic based on a political boundary may seem artificial and “unnatural,” it can have huge positive conservation implications, because conservation and management is often determined by political jurisdiction. When a jurisdiction has a species “unique” to their area, that can generate a lot of popular support for its protection. If that species has been widely introduced elsewhere, though, it unfortunately isn’t as easy to generate such support, whether or not we continue calling the species endemic there. It begins to dilute the meaning of “endemic” (to the general public) when the documented geographic distribution appears to contradict it.


Endemism is a human concept whether it is applied to natural geographic boundaries or to political boundaries.

Saying that endemism is a “human concept” is true but provides no relevant information. You are right: the scale at which you define endemism can be subjective (albeit some endemism centers can be objectively defined!). However, if you mean that the concept of endemism is arbitrary or without any ecological reality, I strongly disagree.

1 Like

Every taxon is endemic somewhere. That is the ecological reality to me. What is arbitrary is the boundaries we choose - spatial, temporal, anthropogenic - by which to judge whether something is endemic at any given place and time.

Basing that choice on simple current geographic distribution (like the existing iNat definition) has its pros and cons. I mentioned one of the pros earlier, and so have others. The main con I have heard is that anthropogenic dispersal can change the boundaries of endemism.

Basing that choice on our best estimate of where something was native prior to the beginning of anthropogenic dispersal (what I believe you are advocating) also has its pros and cons.

Glad to see both debated, and I still think the context of a Feature Request would be a better place for it.

Yes, I will open a Feature Request but I wanted to discuss the purely biological aspects there first.

Then this is our divergence: I see it from an evolutionary and a biogeographical point of view. For me, endemism is not just a way of saying “this species occurs only there” but foremost the natural phenomenon by which a taxon is, or became, restricted to a particular place or set of places.

Endemism tells us many things about the past environment, biocenosis, climatic conditions, and even geology. Of course, there are definitely different types and degrees of endemism, but I maintain that there is much more objectivity than you suggest. With this biogeographical definition, there are obviously no anthropogenic boundaries. The “temporal boundaries” do not affect species that have always been naturally restricted to a particular place, while for relictual species by definition they had a broader natural range in the past*. For the spatial boundaries, first, there are fairly objective ways to define endemism centers. And second, given a particular place with spatial boundaries, there is no subjectivity in stating if the native range of a species is entirely contained inside or not. Only the biological relevance of this statement will vary as a function of the place.

For instance:

  • Salamandra lanzai is endemic to Italy (this statement is false: there are native populations outside italy)
  • Salamandra lanzai is endemic to the southeastern Alps glacial refugium (this statement is true and very relevant)
  • Salamandra lanzai is endemic to the Alps (this statement is true and relevant)
  • Salamandra lanzai is endemic to Europe (this statement is true but not relevant in most contexts)

This is why saying that Speleomantes italicus is no longer endemic to the Apennine because it was introduced to Germany or that the Asian Cheetah is endemic to central Iran because it has been extirpated from most of its wide range makes absolutely no sense for me.

*Of course there are species that expand their range without human introductions (e.g. Canis aureus). But these species usually have broad distributions in the first place, and modify their distribution usually in response to anthropogenic modification of the environment (climatic, land use, resources, etc.)


This argument makes a lot of sense to me. Here in New Mexico, we have two species of plethodontid salamander (a Plethodon and an Aneides) that are found nowhere else in the world. While it’s correct to say that both are endemic to New Mexico, what’s really relevant is that one is endemic to a single mountain range in northern NM and the other is endemic to a different series of mountain ranges in south-central NM. Their endemism in two different mountainous areas is what’s evolutionarily/ecologically interesting.


One clarification: if a species is defined as endemic to a particular political jurisdiction, such as a country or state/province, and that results in additional interest and efforts to conserve that organism, then I’m okay with emphasizing that status. It’s something that non-biologists who might be interested in their local natural heritage can appreciate.