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Explainer: What is an endangered species?

From the tiniest mushroom to the mightiest whale, endangered species have one thing in common. They’re in danger of disappearing. Whether it’s a cactus or a coral, these species face threats in their environment. Such threats can include habitat loss, disease and climate change. And with small or dwindling numbers or range, these species could soon be completely gone.

Governments and organizations use different terms and criteria to describe species’ risk of extinction. The International Union of Conservation (IUCN) is a global organization that gathers information about the world’s species. This organization ranks species from across the world based on their population health. A species in peril can be labeled as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. These are all categories that mean the species is at risk of going extinct. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has its own terms: threatened and endangered.

“But the goal is the same — identify the species at highest need of our help,” says Jennifer Luedtke. Luedtke is a conservationist who helps the IUCN keep track of the world’s amphibians. She also works for in Washington, D.C. for Re:Wild. This organization is working to protect the diversity of life on Earth.

Identifying endangered species is the first step toward conserving them. For many species, that work begins with the Red List. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, created this list. Based in Gland, Switzerland, IUCN maintains the most compete descriptions on the global status of at-risk plants and animals.

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