Skip to content
Exploring: Home » Insiders Guide » Ask the Big Kahuna » What is the difference between endemic and indigenous?

What is the difference between endemic and indigenous?

Ask the Big Kahuna

“Answering the most common visitor questions”


When I was in Hawaii I kept hearing and reading about animals or plants that are native, endemic (sounds like a disease), indigenous or alien. What’s the difference?

Bill W.
Seattle, Washington


Aloha Bill!

People who live in Hawaii care a lot about these words because they want to try to keep plant and animal life like it was hundreds of years ago (before the English–or even the Polynesians got here) as much as possible. To show you what humans can do, prior to their arrival on the Hawaiian islands, there were about 140 native (I’ll get to the meaning in a minute) species and subspecies of birds. Half of them are now extinct. Of the species that are left, 30 are endangered and half of those are literally on the brink of extinction.

Okay, so here are the definitions:

Native: Organisms brought to a location without the help of man, such as by wind, wave and or birds. The nene, or Hawaiian goose (Hawaii’s state bird) is an example.

Endemic: Organisms that are native and can be found ONLY in that location. Examples of organisms that are endemic to Hawaii are the spectacled parrotfish, fantail filefish, and Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Indigenous: Organisms that are native but can be found elsewhere. An example of this is the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.

Alien or Introduced Species: Organisms that were not brought to that location naturally, but by man, such as the Polynesian. The common guava and feral pigs are examples.

The danger of introducing ANY species onto an island is the potential negative ripple effect on other species. For example, the brown tree snake was introduced on Guam some years ago and now Guam has no birds because the snakes ate all the eggs, since no natural predator could stop the snakes. Hawaii has no snakes of any kind on any of its islands and daily inspections of all aircraft, boats, and cargo keep snakes from becoming the species that ate Hawaii.

The next time you visit Hawaii, be nice to the nene, but go ahead and pig out on pig.

Big Kahuna