What are Threatened Species?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 21 December 2019
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Threatened species are organisms that are at risk of extinction in the relatively near future unless an intervention or radical change occurs. If conservation actions are not taken, these species may vanish in the wild. While captive breeding programs may be used to preserve the species, such programs carry risks, including loss of genetic diversity as a result of limited numbers of organisms enrolled in the program to start with, compounded by difficulties in organizing and maintaining a breeding program. Some species, for example, are extremely challenging to breed in captivity.

The International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) uses “threatened” as a broad category to describe species that are vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered. Threatened species are cataloged on a list known as the Red List and such species are sometimes known as “red listed species” to reflect this. The IUCN Red List is available online and is also published in hard copy form. It is continuously revised and updated to reflect new additions and changes in status in order to keep the conservation community apprised of new developments.


In the United States, “threatened” is one of two categories for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The other category is “endangered.” This difference in terminology can be confusing to people who are used to the IUCN definitions, or in conversations where people do not clarify and provide information about the classification system they are using. Other nations with laws to protect threatened species tend to use the IUCN standards and these standards are also used in international law.

There are numerous reasons why species can become threatened, including loss of habitat, overhunting, disease, and climate change. Scientists who research threatened species explore the myriad reasons why organisms can become vulnerable to extinction. The interconnected nature of the relationships between animals and the environment can become especially important, as the loss of one species can create a domino effect that spreads to other species. Identifying key species in an environment before they go extinct is an important aspect of conservation.

Steps that can be taken to conserve species include establishing captive breeding programs to create a gene pool that can be reintroduced into the wild, along with passing laws to protect wilderness areas, cleaning up environmental hazards, and taking steps to curtail human activities that threaten the environment. This includes making policy changes on an international level, as well as encouraging individual communities to preserve the threatened species in their regions.


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