11 Islands With Amazing Biodiversity

Jellyfish Lake, Palau with small green islands and various shades of blue water
The remarkable golden jellies of Jellyfish Lake, Palau exemplify the biodiversity of the islands in this region.

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Islands boast some of the most diverse collections of plants and animals on Earth. With a unique set of influences and conditions, island life has evolved very differently from life on larger landmasses. Islands preserve habitats for a wealth of unique and endemic plants and animals on land and in the water. 

Here are 11 islands that provide a living definition of biological diversity.

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Rainforest with a dusky leaf monkey hanging on a tree in Borneo

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The world's third-largest island, Borneo has about the same land area as the state of Texas. Divided among Malaysia, Indonesia, and the tiny sultanate of Brunei, the isle has more than 222 mammal species, 44 of which are endemic.

About 6,000 of Borneo's plant species are also endemic. The most striking biodiversity statistic comes from the dipterocarp trees of Borneo's rainforests: More than 1,000 insect species can be found in a single tree.

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two elephants in the water surrounded by green foliage in North Sumatra

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This island in westernmost Indonesia contains more than 182,000 square miles of land. Despite being home to more than 50 million people, Sumatra boasts a stunning array of wildlife.

The inland jungles of Sumatra are native to a rare combination of species. This is the only place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans live wild in the same ecosystem. Aggressive conservation efforts aim to protect these species, especially the critically endangered, endemic Sumatran tiger, whose numbers are estimated at approximately 500.

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white Silky Sifaka Lemur in tree

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The Indian Ocean nation of Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, defines biodiversity like no other island on Earth. Almost 90% of its plant life and 92% of its mammals are endemic.

Some mountaintops in the Malagasy highlands are the only places where certain plant species grow. Of course, the lemur is the most famous only-in-Madagascar animal, as 104 types of lemur species and subspecies are endemic to the island.

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New Zealand

The green-blue waters of Milford Sound fjord with a view of Mitre Peak, South Island, New Zealand

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Located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is made up of two main landmasses—North Island and South Island. Each of New Zealand's ecosystems is filled with endemic species.

All native bats, reptiles, and amphibians are found nowhere else on Earth, and 88% of the freshwater fish are endemic as well. A great example of New Zealand's nature is its fungi population. Just one-third of the estimated 22,000 species of fungi in New Zealand have even been categorized.

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Russell Falls, Tasmania with lush green plants and cascading waterfalls

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Sitting to the south of mainland Australia, Tasmania is one of its country's most important biodiversity hotspots. The most famous of this island's creatures is the Tasmanian devil, considered the world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial.

Among the island's native plants, the Huon pine grows very slowly but can live for 3,000 years. The endemic pandani, a prehistoric-looking palmlike tree, dominates the wet subalpine climes of Tasmania. Platypuses, penguins, parrots, and the rare eastern quoll are also part of this island's diverse animal population.

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large rock formation covered with plants in the middle of the water Palau Islands in Micronesia

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The tiny Micronesian nation of Palau, only 170 square miles, is rich in wildlife both on land and in the water. Palau's coastal areas have a high concentration of marine life, including crustaceans and corals.

The unusual dugong, a relative of the manatee, can be found in large numbers in Palau's coastal shallows. The island chain also has great diversity when it comes to its freshwater fish population, including four endemic species. Another unique species is the golden jellyfish, found only in Palau's Jellyfish Lake. Once believed to be stingless, these jellyfish have stinging cells that they use to capture zooplankton. Their sting, however, is mild, and harmless to humans.

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Coiba Island

Beach of Coiba Island with lush green trees, sand, and light blue water

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Sitting off Panama's Pacific coast, Coiba is a large Central American island. A number of subspecies have evolved here with almost no human contact. The Coiba howler monkey is the most famous of these endemic animals.

Island wildlife thrived here for an unusual reason: Until 2004, a notorious Panamanian prison was operated on Coiba. Because of this, few civilians ever visited the island, and more than 75% of the land is still covered with virgin forests. One of the largest coral reefs on the entire Pacific Coast of the Americas sits near Coiba as well. More than 800 species of fish have been recorded in these marine habitats.

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South Georgia Island

King penguins at St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia with snow-covered mountains in the distance

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The islands of Antarctica are the last place you might expect to find biodiversity. But researchers have been intently studying remote South Georgia Island and have found as much biodiversity here as on the famous Galápagos.

A 2011 survey found 1,445 marine species living in South Georgia's coastal waters. Unusual creatures—like free-swimming sea worms, icefish, and sea spiders—live here. Massive penguin populations dominate South Georgia’s shores, while 95% of the world's fur seals use the island as a breeding base, as do about half of the Earth’s population of elephant seals.

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Galápagos Islands

Galapagos marine iguana on a large rock overlooking the bright blue water

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These famous Ecuadorian islands straddle the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Charles Darwin came here in the 1830s and returned with solid evidence to support his theories about evolution. Many of the animals that inspired his findings still thrive here.

The Galápagos land iguana (a unique marine iguana that hunts in the sea), the Galápagos tortoise, the flightless cormorant, and a huge number of endemic finches (collectively referred to as "Darwin's finches") call these islands home. The Galapagos is also home to the only penguin species in the Northern Hemisphere. In this remarkable place, it is not uncommon to find several species occupying the same small piece of shoreline.

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Zapata Swamp, Cuba with shallow water and green vegetation

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Cuba's political and economic isolation means that relatively little is known about its wildlife. However, a number of species thrive in the island's unique combination of ecosystems.

The Zapata Swamp is a great example of Cuba's biodiversity. The largest wetland in the Caribbean, Zapata is home to the critically endangered Cuban crocodile. In addition to this endemic reptilian predator, the swamplands have flocks of picturesque flamingos, several endemic bird species, and hundreds of unique plants and insects. Cuba's overall geographic diversity—wetlands, inland savannas, mountains, arid coastal areas, and tropical rainforests—has created a unique set of ecosystems, each of which is filled with endemic life.

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Channel Islands

Anacapa Arch surrounded by bright blue water on the Channel Islands

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Eight islands that sit a short distance from the city of Santa Barbara are part of California's Channel Islands archipelago. Five of these landmasses, as well as the waters between them, are part of the Channel Islands National Park.

The islands are home to 145 endemic species, including bird species like the island scrub jay, found only on the largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz Island. Bats and unique subspecies of mouse and fox are among the national park's terrestrial inhabitants, though much of the biodiversity is found in the ocean waters between the islands. Seals, sea lions, whales, and dolphins all share the waters around these islands. Coming to breed and to feed, these sea mammals are a big draw for nature-seekers.