What is a Rare Species?

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

Rare species are organisms that are considered to be very uncommon. They can include both plants and animals. A rare animal can be an endangered species; most rare organisms are considered threatened, as they cannot recover quickly from catastrophic events and face the threat of rapid population decline.

The giant panda is a rare species.
The giant panda is a rare species.

Animal species that are considered to be rare do not have to be endangered. They can simply be found in a small concentrated area. Such areas are usually remote and very isolated from the rest of the world. In some cases, they may not be threatened at all, naturally existing in small numbers.

The cao-vit crested gibbon is a rare species.
The cao-vit crested gibbon is a rare species.

An official government body may declare a species as rare. States, national governments, and provinces have all designated rare plants and animals. To be listed as rare, a species must usually consist of less than 10,000 worldwide.

Several species of monkeys and other primates are considered rare or endangered.
Several species of monkeys and other primates are considered rare or endangered.

The United States is home to many rare species. The Laysan Duck of Hawaii is a rare bird species. A rare plant species, the Virginia Round-leaf Birch, can be found in Cressy Creek, Virginia. The showy Indian clover, ash meadows stick-leaf, and baker's larkspur, all rare plants, grow in the United States as well.

New Zealand lists several species as being rare, including the black robin and the kakapo. Rare reptile species include the Aruba Island rattlesnake and the Abingdon Island tortoise of Ecuador, while the Javan rhinoceros and the cao-vit crested gibbon, both of Vietnam, are listed as rare mammal species. The Lord Howe Island stick insect is a well-known rare insect species in the scientific community.

Earth's rarest animals exist in numbers fewer than 50. Less than 30 Vancouver Island marmots exist, while the baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, has less than 20 animals of its kind remaining. The Seychelles sheath-tailed bat is listed as rare with fewer than 50 bats left in existence. Animals with fewer than 100 species left include the tamaraw, or dwarf water buffalo, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the Hispid hare.

Food chains make no distinction regarding rare animals. Small animals, normally a source of prey, can be rare. The Riverine rabbit is one example. Larger, predatory creatures, such as the Iberian lynx and Ethiopian wolf, are also considered rare species.

Many other rare species exist with numbers between 200 to 1,000. Several types of primates, including the yellow-tailed wooly monkey, Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, black-faced lion tamarin, and greater bamboo lemur, are listed as rare. The giant panda, one of the most well-known endangered species in the world, is also a rare species.

South China tigers are believed to be extinct in the wild.
South China tigers are believed to be extinct in the wild.
Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, Sara has a Master’s Degree in English, which she puts to use writing for wiseGEEK and several magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She has published her own novella, and has other literary projects currently in progress. Sara’s varied interests have also led her to teach children in Spain, tutor college students, run CPR and first aid classes, and organize student retreats.

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Discussion Comments


@saraq90 - To me, I am not an expert, but it is difficult to say what the rate of extinction of species is.

They are always many claims of extinction, and it seems quite probable that some species are going to become extinct. However, some reports have come out to say that rate of extinction measures are flawed.

I don't feel too great about any species becoming extinct, whether they were rare to begin with or not!


@aLFredo - I appreciate that people are trying to conserve the rare species. But do rare species; have a high probability of becoming extinct?


There are even rare tree species. If you are interested in rare tree species, programs exist to teach you which ones they are and how to grow them.

It seems just like endangered species people are interested, and rightfully so, to keep the species around even if it is a small number is what naturally exists for that species. This way they can help prevent it from becoming an extinct species!


@popcorn- I know some zoos are good, but others are just too small to be helpful. I appreciate the ones that are in warmer climates especially; not that colder climates don't deserve zoos, but it is just so much easier to make the species from places like Asia and Africa comfortable in a place that rarely goes below freezing, even in winter.


@popcorn- I don't know the percentage, but I know in larger zoos especially a large amount of attention is paid to the number on their personal rare species list- last summer I went to the San Diego Zoo and they are really proud of their status as having more rare species than anyone else.

I think it's good though, because being able to tout that number means that more people come to the zoo and more people donate, helping to keep it alive, and helping them to continue doing good work with breeding programs, of which I know they have several.


Does anyone know what percentage of rare species of animals is kept in zoos? Also, do you think the zoos are helping to preserve the lives of rare species or do you feel their work is more of a last ditch effort to try and breed more of the species?

I know when I have gone to a few giant panda exhibit there seems to be a huge emphasis on the breeding portion of their work. For a zoo it seems that getting a rare species to replicate is a huge triumph. In the case of pandas they are notoriously hard to make mate and produce offspring. Panda cubs always make the news.


I knew there were a lot of real plants and animals that were considered rare species but I have found that the use of the 'rare species' title seems to have been adopted by a lot of popular computer games.

For myself I play a lot of online role-playing games and a huge part of those games is searching out rare species of plants for some kind of medicinal cure or hunting for a rare species of animal that you can keep as a pet or mount. Most of the games I play usually mark rare species with a special name color or identifying icon.

I think as in real life, searching for real species can be very exciting for those who are interested in discovering something unique.


I don't believe that we are doing enough to protect rare species in the U.S. Most of the work is concentrated on endangered species and threatened species. The amount of money thatis spent on saving endangered species is huge, and not even comparable to what is available for rare species.

I have also read claims that the Endangered Species Act has a negative effect on rare species. I didn't know this before but apparently the U.S. Wildlife Services can take any private or public land for their services. This is causing homeowners to not list rare species that live on their land. There might even be a few cases where home owners try to keep rare species off their land which might cause them to be harmed or killed.

I hope we do more to protect rare species. We shouldn't wait until they are endangered to try and save them. We need diversity in nature and diversity in species.


@KaBoom - Panda bears do seem to be featured in the media a lot. I think one of the reasons is that they are cute! People tend to feel more sympathetic towards a cute, furry animal than, say, an Aruba Island rattle snake.

Also, panda bears are important in Chinese culture. I believe they symbolize friendship.


The only rare species mentioned in this article that I've actually heard about is the giant panda. I wonder why the panda bear gets so much more attention than other rare species?


I think that there are probably many more rare species than we know about. One of the reasons is because most rare species are found in very isolated places where people don't live, so they will go unnoticed.

I also learned in class that scientists use different indexes to find the abundance of different species. But a lot of these indexes calculate commonly found species better than rare species. So there is bias and scientists' research probably shows smaller numbers of rare species than there really are.


In order for a species to be categorized as rare, does it need to have existed in small numbers throughout history?

The article mentioned that just because a species is rare does not mean that it is endangered. Most of them naturally exist in small numbers.

But does the distinction between rare and endangered come from the amount of time those species have existed in those numbers? If there was a species with 10,000 members fifty years ago, and now there are 500 of them, we would call them endangered, not rare. But to know that, we need to have data about their numbers from before. Only if we know the numbers they naturally exist in, we can determine whether they are rare or endangered.

Did I understand this right?

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