What does "Endemic" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Poison ivy is endemic to the Northeastern regions of North America.
Poison ivy is endemic to the Northeastern regions of North America.

When something is said to be “endemic,” it means that it is characteristic of an area, and naturally present in the region. Biologists often use this term to describe plants and animals, and it may also be used by epidemiologists. By contrast, the closely-related word “epidemic” means that something is new to the area, and not naturally occurring. “Endemic” comes from the Greek en-, a prefix meaning “in,” and demos, which is used to mean “district” in this sense, although it can also mean “people.”

Many people of African descent suffer from sickle cell anemia, a disease that is linked with malarial regions.
Many people of African descent suffer from sickle cell anemia, a disease that is linked with malarial regions.

In the sense of biology, people usually use this term to describe a species that is unique to a particular area. For example, a biologist might say “the Red Breasted Snork is endemic to the Fallacious Islands,” meaning that the Red Breasted Snork is found primarily (or only) in the Fallacious Islands. Endemic plants and animals characterize the region they live in, allowing biologists to identify specific regional zones, and they may be ancient or new residents.

Malaria is endemic to many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.
Malaria is endemic to many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

Endemic vegetation and animals are often vulnerable to changes in their natural environment. Unlike organisms with what is known as a “cosmopolitan distribution,” meaning that they are found in many areas, endemic organisms have a limited range. This means that expanded human activities, natural disasters, and climate change can all threaten the well-being of a population. Many endangered organisms are considered endemic, making their preservation even more challenging.

In epidemiology, an endemic disease is a disease which is naturally present in a population, rather than a disease which is introduced. For example, malaria is endemic to many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, with a fairly steady infection rate among the general population. Sometimes, such diseases can play an active role in evolution; for example, many people of African descent suffer from sickle cell anemia, a disease that is closely linked with malarial regions.

Just because something is naturally present doesn't mean that it is not harmful. Poison ivy, for example, is endemic to the Northeastern regions of North America, and most people regard this plant as extremely irritating. These organisms can also threaten their environment if the environment becomes unbalanced; for example, an endemic deer may experience a population explosion if predators are eliminated, leading to overgrazing and hardship for smaller animals. Often, the balance of native populations of plants and animals is very fragile, and a small disruption can make a huge difference.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon334628

Does it mean a disease or condition regularly found among particular people or in a certain area?

fify

Endemic might have first been used to describe species, but I have heard it to describe so many other things that I think it is now a common description in many other fields.

There was an article just the other day and it talked about how the US has become an endemic surveillance society. I think endemic can basically be used to describe anything that is confined to a particular place. It's not something that is common and found everywhere but only in specific places.

discographer

Thanks for the information! I had heard endemic used when describing corruption, as in "endemic corruption" but didn't realize that it was used in medicine and biology.

I was reading something and saw "endemic villages." Now I understand that it's talking about a disease that has affected that village for a long time and is now characteristic of it.

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    • Poison ivy is endemic to the Northeastern regions of North America.
      By: Riverwalker
      Poison ivy is endemic to the Northeastern regions of North America.
    • Many people of African descent suffer from sickle cell anemia, a disease that is linked with malarial regions.
      By: spotmatikphoto
      Many people of African descent suffer from sickle cell anemia, a disease that is linked with malarial regions.
    • Malaria is endemic to many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.
      By: claffra
      Malaria is endemic to many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.