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What is a Native Species?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A native species is an organism that is living in an area for entirely natural reasons, with no human intervention involved. This may be because the organism evolved in that environment, or it may have been brought there by natural causes. Wind can spread plant seeds widely for example, and species may be carried by animals or birds; individuals may also migrate seeking food or territory. By contrast, a non-native species has been introduced, intentionally or accidentally, by humans and may become invasive, taking over the natural environment and choking out native species. Invasive species often develop quickly and spread aggressively, making it difficult for natives to compete.

Over time, a native species usually evolves to perfectly fit in the environment where it has settled. Subspecies that have refined themselves to take advantage of subtle variations in the environment can also develop, and some of these may eventually evolve into new species. This increase in specialization, however, can render an organism less able to cope with changes in its environment

Endemic and Indigenous Species

Two types of native species are recognized: endemic species are found only in the area concerned, while indigenous species are also found naturally in other areas. Endemic organisms are particularly vulnerable to extinction as they may be confined to a very small region and to particular habitats within that region. They may have evolved in a very specialized way, to adapt to an unusual and uncommon environment, and may only be able to survive in a very limited range of conditions.

Populations of indigenous organisms tend to be more robust, as they are more widespread. They have usually evolved to thrive in habitats that are quite commonplace or to be able to adapt to a wide range of conditions. Sometimes, they can recolonize areas from which they have disappeared, and in some cases, they have been reintroduced by humans.

One reason for an organism to be native to a region is because it evolved there. This is seen most commonly on islands, where comparative isolation allows unique species to develop over extended periods of time. Islands consequently tend to have many endemic species, and their distinctive ecologies are very vulnerable. When island environments are disrupted, the native species found nowhere else may quickly become extinct.

The Spreading of Indigenous Species

Indigenous species may have evolved in a habitat where they are found, or they may have arrived there, by natural means, from elsewhere. As organisms have evolved to fit an evolutionary niche, they will spread to other areas where that niche remains unfilled, if they have the means to do so. Transportation of plants and seedlings can occur on wind currents, on the bodies and in the bellies of animals in their natural range, and as a result of putting out shoots and runners. A plant species, for example, can therefore end up covering a very large territory.

Animals spread naturally as their populations increase and they range further in search of food and territory. Native animals may follow seasonal migrational patterns or may relocate their populations periodically in response to various pressures, natural curiosity, or changing landscapes. Some animals travel vast distances in search of new territory; certain bird and insect species are particularly notable for their lengthy migrations.

Threats to Native Species

Native species face a variety of threats to their survival, and some are critically endangered as a result of human activities. A number of animals and birds have been lost in the last few centuries as they have been hunted to extinction. In the present day, destruction of habitats is a major threat, as more land is built over or used for agriculture.

The Protection of Native Species

Recognition of the importance of native species and unique environments has led to the formation of a number of organizations that promote native plants and animals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains lists of endangered and critically endangered species and campaigns to protect their interests. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, works to help preserve the habitats of native animals, plants, and other organisms, and runs adoption campaigns for endangered animals. At a more local level, there are many organizations that encourage people to use native plants in their gardens, participate in eradication campaigns for invasive organisms, and educate people about the risks to native animal species posed by imported livestock and pets.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a species as native to a region?

A native species is one that has originated and evolved in a particular region without human intervention. These species have established their presence over many generations, forming intricate relationships with the local ecosystem. They are well-adapted to the area's climate, soil, and other native species, contributing to the region's natural balance.

Why is it important to preserve native species?

Preserving native species is crucial for maintaining biodiversity, which ensures ecosystem resilience and functionality. Native species often have specific roles, such as pollination or seed dispersal, which are vital for ecosystem health. According to the World Wildlife Fund, biodiversity also supports ecosystem services that humans rely on, such as clean water and air.

How do native species impact their environment differently than non-native species?

Native species typically exist in a state of equilibrium with their environment, having co-evolved with other local species. This balance allows for sustainable interactions. In contrast, non-native species can disrupt local ecosystems by outcompeting natives for resources, introducing diseases, or preying on native species, often leading to environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity.

Can a non-native species ever become native?

A non-native species cannot become native, as nativity is determined by a species' natural occurrence in an area over evolutionary time scales. However, a non-native species can become naturalized, meaning it establishes a stable population and integrates into the ecosystem without causing significant harm, as noted by ecologists.

What are the consequences of losing native species in an ecosystem?

Losing native species can lead to a cascade of negative ecological consequences. It disrupts food webs, alters nutrient cycling, and can lead to the decline of other species, including those that humans directly rely on. The loss of keystone species, as reported by the National Wildlife Federation, can be particularly devastating, potentially transforming entire ecosystems.

How can individuals help protect native species?

Individuals can protect native species by planting native plants, which support local wildlife, and by avoiding the introduction of invasive species into the environment. Participating in citizen science projects and supporting conservation organizations are also effective ways to contribute. Educating oneself and others about the importance of native species helps foster a culture of conservation.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By 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.

Discussion Comments

By Bertie68 — On May 17, 2011

@Clairdelune - My daughter is a member of her school's environmental protection club, and from what she tells me, the animals that are most endangered or threatened in the US are the bald eagle -- which I think is a shame, since it's our national animal! -- the pygmy rabbit, the Western pond turtle, and the gray wolf. I may have mixed a few of those up, but I think that's what they're called. I guess it's kind of sad when there are so many endangered animals that you can't even keep them straight!

By Clairdelune — On May 16, 2011

I'd like to know more about endangered animals, especially those in the United States. Thanks.

By Esther11 — On May 15, 2011

This is a very interesting article. I never thought that much about how many conditions affect animal and plant populations. I know where I live, in Oregon, we have some huge problems with invasive species, like nutrias!

In case you don't know (and consider yourself lucky if you've never run into one of these guys) nutrias are fairly large rodent with orange teeth (yuck), were originally brought to the U.S. for the sale of their fur. But they became overpopulated and are now a real nuisance, even in neighborhood ponds.

Now, I know some people think they're cute, but for me, seeing one of those guys in my pond scaring the birds kind of puts me off of them. I say up with native species!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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