Endemic Native Trees

Alexandra Climent
Rainforest conservationist, artist, founder of Endangered Rainforest Rescue, and explorer of the Darién Gap of Panamá with a focus on indigenous rights and biodiversity restoration

Found exclusively in specific regions of our Earth, endemic native tree species are essential to biodiversity and serve as the architects of magnificent habitats, such as tropical rainforests. Their singular presence gives rise to a myriad of interconnected plant and animal species, uniquely adapted to rely on these trees for life. In ancient rainforests, where nearly 80% of species are endemic, these native trees form the towering canopy that encapsulates their habitats. As a result of this high endemism, tropical rainforest habitats hold half of the world's animal and plant species. The loss of one endemic tree species causes a domino effect, jeopardizing the survival of countless other organisms that rely on them.

These species face escalating threats from the twin crisis of climate change and human interference. Alterations in climatic patterns, including rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, and extreme weather events, all disrupt the delicate balance these trees require for their unique ecosystems. Their restricted geographic range makes them particularly susceptible to these environmental shifts, rendering them more vulnerable to extinction. Safeguarding these trees is the first line of defense in preserving our most threatened ecosystems which assist enormously in our fight against global warming. Their preservation is fundamental in restoring and maintaining native biodiversity for the long-term health of our entire planet.

Endemic Native Tree 1

Photography By Pamela EA

Text by Sorah Park
Research by Melissa Burrell
Fact-checked by Hailey Basiouny

July 1, 2024

Endemic native trees are any species of trees that are naturally specific to a region and do not exist anywhere else on earth. They are the foundation of ecosystems in biodiverse regions such as tropical rainforests. The Darién is one of the most biodiverse tropical rainforest habitats located in Central America. As a result of prehistoric sea levels, flora and fauna inhabited high mountain tops in cloud forests. Ecosystems such as the Darién contain an abundance of undiscovered endemic species. However, the Darién increasingly faces disruptions from human-induced climate change, so endemic native trees such as tropical hardwoods have been moving to higher elevations, threatening the livelihoods of the plants and animals that rely on these trees. Endemic native trees are key to biodiversity, but their unique, small population in limited geographical areas make them more susceptible to extinction.

In Europe, 58% of endemic trees were threatened with extinction due to invasive species such as pests and diseases. While these trees offer crucial ecosystem services such as clean air and food supply, endemic trees are rarely prioritized in conservation efforts. To protect these vital trees from risk of extinction, improvements in policies relating to land use are necessary to ensure their continued survival. In the United States, there are a total of 881 endemic tree species native to the country, distributed primarily throughout the southeastern region, California, and Texas. These geographical areas are known as “tree hotspots”, containing the highest number of threatened tree species in the U.S. As climate change continues to exacerbate their vulnerability, safeguarding endemic tree species is an important conservation tool to protect against biodiversity loss.

Fortunately, public recognition of endemic native trees and its importance is growing in the public eye. In May 2022, Hawaii’s Governor David Ige signed into law a bill to designate the Ohi’a as the official endemic tree of Hawaii, acknowledging the cultural, environmental, and economic significance of the tree and its threatened existence. The Ohi’a trees are endemic to Hawaii and constitute 80% of all native forests. Endemic trees not only provide critical services to societies, but their remarkable ability to stabilize soil and prevent erosion assists the creation of more resilient landscapes in the face of climate change. Since these trees have adapted to local ecological conditions, they are better suited to withstand environmental hazards. By prioritizing endemic tree species in reforestation efforts, as opposed to non-native species, these vulnerable climates can become thriving ecosystems for local communities.

In a study conducted in Chile, researchers concluded that native species provided more ecosystem services than exotic ones. The services that were analyzed when comparing the native and exotic tree species included mitigation of pollution, microclimatic regulation, water regulation, soil quality and production of edible fruits. Scientists recommend prioritizing endemic trees in Santiago, Chile’s largest urban landscape, to build more green infrastructure and to better respond to a warming climate. While endemic species make up 10% of land surface globally, they are responsible for at least 70% of the planet’s terrestrial biological diversity. Today, forests make up less than 30% of global land, and lose an estimated 38,000 sq miles every year from deforestation. But with restoration efforts that prioritize endemic native trees, biodiversity can increase in a given ecosystem by 15-84% compared to unrestored regions. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, specifically SDG 14 and SDG 15, set targets to reverse forest losses and underline the importance of endemic species for people and the planet. As the backbone of ecosystems, the contributions of endemic native trees are instrumental and remain a crucial marker for environmental health, especially in a changing climate. These unique trees may exist in limited geographical areas, but they must be prioritized in ongoing policy and conservation planning to maintain biodiversity and support ecosystem resilience.

  • 1

    Climent, Alexandra. “Mind the Darién Gap: Saving Central America’s Endangered Rainforest.” Plantings: World Sensorium (2023)

  • 2

    Fiechter, Matthias. “Over half of Europe’s endemic trees face extinction.” International Union for Conservation of Nature, (Sept 2019)

  • 3

    Carrero, Christina. Beckman Bruns, Emily., Jerome, Diana. 2022. “Data sharing for conservation: A standardized checklist of US Native tree species and threat assessments to prioritize and coordinate action.” Edited by Amanda Treher Eberly Plants, People, Planet New Phytologist Foundation 5, Issue 4

  • 4

    Duchaine, Max. 2024. “Harnessing the Power of Native Trees: A Natural Solution to Combat Erosion and Landslides,” Scenic America

  • 5

    Arco-LeBert, Garbiela., Aravenda-Hidalgo, Tamara. 2021. “Native trees provide more benefits than exotic trees when ecosystem services are weighted in Santiago, Chile” Trees Vol 35

  • 6

    Zart, Kyle. “Trees and Their Essential Role in Biodiverse Ecosystems” Arbor Day Foundation, December 2022

  • 7

    Martinez, Armando Martínez. “Endemic species and their value to biodiversity.” Iberdrola Sustainability February 2021