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Endemic plants and animals are species that are native to one specific area. Over time, borders and lands have shifted, sometimes displacing or moving species with them. Climate change and habitat destruction have also led to dwindling wildlife and plant population numbers in many areas. Even with these upheavals, countless fascinating plants and animals remain native to very specific habitats today. From the muddy waters of the Amazon River to the icy Antarctic and the remote jungles of mountainous Pacific islands, here are 12 places around the world where you can encounter fascinating endemic plants and animals.
Indonesia is home to more than 800 endemic species of mammals, birds, and amphibians. Among these many unique, little-known creatures, some stand out for their surprising similarities — as well as a few notable differences — to species already familiar to people in the United States. The anoa, also known as the long-horned dwarf buffalo, looks like a small, delicate version of the American bison. The red, blue, and black jewel-toned black-winged lory bird, which roosts in coconut trees, has a body and beak reminiscent of a common parakeet — with an arresting plumage that’s far more vibrant. And the rare, nocturnal red-furred Borneo bay cat is a taller, more slender, and wilder-looking relative of the common house cats that we all know well.
Found off the coast of Hawaii, the beloved Hawaiian monk seal is the only marine mammal endemic to U.S. waters. To locals, the small-sized playful seals are known as ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, which means “dog running in the rough water,” and they do resemble pups splashing around playfully as they swim. Unfortunately, Hawaiian monk seals are listed as an endangered species, and their numbers are quickly dwindling. They may live to the ripe age of 30, but given increasing threats to their natural habitat and surroundings, few may make it to their third decade of life — and local conservation efforts aim to change that.
Brazil boasts the highest number of endemic species of any country in the world and is thought to contain the greatest biodiversity of any place on Earth. Much of that is thanks to the Amazon Rainforest — about 60% of its 2.6 million square miles fall within Brazil’s borders. The incredible number of plant and animal species in Brazil continues to lure and fascinate scientists, locals, and tourists alike. Highlights include the striking bright-yellow golden conure parrot; the striped venomous Brazilian coral snake, aptly named for the distinctive coral-red coloring of its scales; and the white-blotched river stingray marked by black and white specks.
Brazil also houses over 55,000 identified plant species, almost one-third of which are endemic. These include the prized national tree, the towering Pau Brasil — with bright yellow, fragrant blossoms, it flourishes in the Atlantic Forest along the coast. The country is also home to more than 2,500 species of spectacular orchids blooming in all shades imaginable.
Mexico is also a powerhouse of biodiversity. Almost magical in appearance, the albino Axolotl salamander, with its crown of furry-looking pink spikes jutting up around its head, is a perfect example of this. A resident of Lake Xochimilco, the Axolotl has the remarkable ability to regenerate its own organs. Another notable endemic Mexican animal, the rare tropical roadrunner (also known as the lesser roadrunner) is a relative of the birds made famous by the popular American cartoon. The small, speckled bird can zip across the landscape at up to 20 miles per hour, scooping up insects, lizards, and snakes as prey.
Costa Rica is remarkable not only for the beauty and richness of its biodiversity, but also for the country’s laudable conservation and preservation efforts. Over one-quarter of the country’s land is designated as a national park, wildlife refuge, or conservation habitat. Here, you’ll find eco-tours full of unusual, eye-popping creatures, like the red-backed, white-faced Central American squirrel monkey, endemic to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Panama Costa Rica is also home to more than 150 frog species, including the red-eyed tree frog and fascinating poison dart frogs, whose coloring serves to warn off predators.
In the Philippines, unusual native plants abound — even meat-eating ones. The Attenborough pitcher plant, for example, is a giant dark red- and eggplant-hued carnivorous pitcher plant native to the archipelagic province of Palawan. Shaped more like an intricate ornamental vase rather than a pitcher, this endangered flower attracts prey with nectar into its oversized, slippery mouth — it’s said to be large enough to trap and consume a rat! Dozens of other remarkable pitcher plant varieties have also been identified across the 7,000-plus islands of the Philippines, including the vibrant, lime-green and purple nepenthes copelandii flower, native to the peaks of Mindanao. The island is known as the pitcher plant capital of the Philippines, with 34 different species identified here alone.
The unique climate and terrain of the Alps, which stretch across eight European countries, including Switzerland, Italy, and France, provides the ideal environment for a number of startlingly beautiful, tiny flora to thrive in. More than 4,500 plant species exist on these rocky, steep, and often icy mountain peaks at high altitude, about 8% of which are endemic. Among these is the edelweiss blossom, a small snowflake-shaped white flower found embroidered and painted on all things Swiss, Italian, and Austrian — from cowbells to backpacks and sweaters. You may also recognize it from the beloved musical The Sound of Music.
Of the estimated 30,000 animal species that roam these mountain ranges, the majestic Alpine ibex, a species of wild goat, is one of the few that does not hibernate. Instead, it climbs the staggering slopes during winter to find food under the shifting snow. On the brink of extinction not long ago, the Alpine ibex was once relegated to the Gran Paradiso National Park of the Italian Alps, where it thrived, but has since made a comeback. With the help of conservation efforts, the ibex has moved to reclaim much of the entire Alpine range.
Many travel to Kenya to see the large and impressive mammals roaming the savanna, from elephants to giraffes and lions. One of the most common sightings is zebras — hundreds of thousands of these jail-striped cousins of wild horses make their way nearly 2,000 miles from Tanzania’s Serengeti plains up to Kenya in their annual migration to find food and water. There are three species of zebra in existence today. The largest and most threatened is Grevy’s zebra, also known as the imperial zebra, which is endemic to the Horn of Africa (northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia). Imperial zebras can be distinguished by their thinner stripes and more horse-like shape than other species.
Also found in the Kenyan landscape is the elegant, speedy, and sandy-hued hirola, one of the most delicate and endangered antelope species in the world (also known as the hunter’s antelope). Its larger relative, the white-striped mountain bongo, is another critically endangered local endemic antelope, living mainly in the undergrowth of the central forest. Less than 100 are thought to remain in existence today.
About one-sixth of all mammal species and two-thirds of amphibian species that inhabit the vast expanses of China are endemic. Among these, the country's most famous wild resident is the giant panda, which is native to the mountains of southwest China. Easily recognized by its contrasting black-and-white markings with large dark patches around its eyes, ears, and body, the giant panda has a diet that consists almost entirely of bamboo — 26 to 84 pounds of it in a single day. Adult male pandas can weigh up to 300 pounds, while females weigh as much as 200 pounds.
Due to habitat destruction from farming and deforestation, China’s giant panda population was once considered endangered, but is now classified as a conservation-reliant vulnerable species. Fortunately, giant panda numbers in the wild are slowly but steadily still increasing today.
The island of New Guinea boasts the most plant diversity of any island in the world, with more than 13,000 species. The island is governed by two separate entities — the western half of the island is controlled by Indonesia, while the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea. Located just north of Australia in the western Pacific Ocean, New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, following Greenland, and the largest tropical island.
Nearly two-thirds of the plants found here are endemic to the island. Orchid flowers are the most diverse group of these plants, numbering 3,000 unique species, and making up nearly one-quarter the island’s total flora. Among the many endemic orchids growing here are the Bulbophyllum nocturnum, the only known night-flowering orchid, and the Bulbophyllum tarantula, with a furry and spiked flower that resembles the legs of the spider it was named after.
There are also approximately 4,000 species of trees found in New Guinea, roughly four times the number found across all of North America. This includes the giant banana tree endemic to the mountains of New Guinea, which produces — as the name suggests — massive fruit. It has equally enormous leaves and a towering height.
At 5.5 million square miles, the Antarctic Polar Desert is the largest desert in the world, but life here still abounds. Notably, of the 18 penguin species in existence on the planet, six of them breed exclusively in this region, including the largest of all, the emperor penguin. They grow up to 48 inches tall and weigh up to 99 pounds. Another is the Adélie penguin, the most widely spread penguin species, which live on the northern ice pack in the winter and the continental coastline in the summer.
In addition to these cheerful colonies of flightless birds dotting Antarctica’s icy landscape, the southern tip of our planet is also the native breeding ground for more than a dozen whale species. While whales generally aren’t endemic to any one specific area, here you can find the largest mammal on Earth, the majestic blue whale, that weighs up to 200 tons; the fin whale, the world's second largest mammal; and the giant humpback whale, known for its lovely, haunting underwater songs.
Unlike the enormous, arid Saharan desert that stretches across much of the northern half of the African continent, South Africa is teeming with plant species. Located in the southwestern part of the country is the Cape Floristic Region (CFR), one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth and home to about 9,000 vascular plant species (69% of which are endemic).
South Africa also boasts several large endemic animal species — including the leopard tortoise, a large, spotted tortoise native to the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, and the cape cobra (also known as the yellow or copper cobra), whose habitat stretches across much of southern Africa and is one of the deadliest snakes on the continent. The region also has a vivid array of amphibians, including the speckled and camouflaged western leopard toad; the arum frog, which changes colors to hide from predators; and the critically endangered Table Mountain or Rose's ghost frog, whose habitat is limited to one small corner of South Africa.