What does “endemic” mean?

Poison ivy is endemic in the Northeast regions of North America.

When something is said to be “endemic”, it means that it is characteristic of an area and is naturally present in the region. Biologists often use this term to describe plants and animals, and it can also be used by epidemiologists. In contrast, the closely related word “epidemic” means that something is new to the area and does not occur naturally. “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 Afro-descendants suffer from sickle cell anemia, a disease that is associated with regions with malaria.

In the biology sense, people often use this term to describe a species that is unique in a particular area. For example, a biologist might say “the red breasted snorkel is endemic to the Fallacious Islands”, meaning that the red breasted snorkel is found mainly (or only) in the Fallacious Islands. Endemic plants and animals characterize the region in which they live, allowing biologists to identify specific regional zones, which may be old or new residents.

Malaria is endemic in 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 they are found in many areas, endemic organisms have a limited range. This means that expanding human activities, natural disasters and climate change can threaten the well-being of a population. Many endangered organisms are considered endemic, making their preservation even more challenging.

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In epidemiology, an endemic disease is a disease that is naturally present in the population, rather than a disease that is introduced. For example, malaria is endemic in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, with a fairly stable infection rate among the general population. Sometimes these 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 to regions with malaria.

Just because something is naturally present doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful. Poison ivy, for example, is endemic to the northeastern regions of North America, and most people find this plant extremely irritating. These organisms can also threaten their environment if the environment becomes unbalanced; for example, an endemic deer can experience a population explosion if predators are eliminated, leading to overgrazing and suffering for smaller animals. Often, the balance of native plant and animal populations is very fragile, and a small disruption can make a big difference.

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