Africa’s Albertine Rift

In Africa’s Albertine Rift immense geological forces have created a huge variety of landscapes and transformed the climate. The unique residents of this evolutionary hotspot have been shaped by the Rift and evolved bizarre and unusual ways to survive.

Produced by NHNZ

The Albertine Rift, forged by fire and geological violence in central Africa, is home to many mutants and evolutionary mysteries. It covers just one percent of the legendary continent, yet this special area contains more species of mammal, bird, reptile and fish than anywhere else in mainland Africa.

Geological fury has torn and twisted the earth into a huge variety of landscapes: ice-capped mountains, dry savannah, dense jungles and toxic swamps. Each environment forces life to mutate and adapt to its unique challenges – or perish.

This giant fracture in the earth also radically changed the climate – it divided the centre of Africa in half – one side wet, the other dry. This drove evolution into strange and radical new directions.

The only survivors of an ancient clan of bizarre mammals were transformed into two very different forms. West of the Albertine Rift the Okapi is a shy and mysterious phantom of the dense jungles, with a short neck and legs and stripes like a zebra. On the dry savannahs of the east, the okapi’s only living relatives are the iconic long-necked giraffes. How did the Rift shape these close relatives to be so different?

The Albertine Rift also pushed up Africa’s tallest mountain range – the Rwenzoris, where snow falls and glaciers form right on the equator. Misty alpine valleys are dominated by giant plants – species like Lobelias which grow taller here than anywhere else on the planet. Few animals can live in the high-altitude and freezing peaks – but a beautiful little sunbird has evolved to almost die every night in order to survive.

The same geological forces also created the mighty Congo river, an impassable barrier that split our closest relatives – chimpanzees – into two very different species. Why are chimps north of the Congo violent and warlike, while their close relatives the bonobos live in peace and harmony south of the river?

The transformation of Central Africa by the Great Rift may also have had a profound effect on human evolution. According to a new theory, our ancient ancestors came down from the trees and learnt to walk on two legs because of the new landscapes created by rifting through Africa. The Albertine Rift may hold the secrets of the ultimate primate survivor – us.

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Brazil’s Cerrado

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Australia

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New Zealand

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Costa Rica

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Africa’s Albertine Rift

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China – Roof of the World

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The Arid Namib

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Madagascar

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Africa’s Rift Valley lakes

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