Encyclopedic Entry

Africa is home to diverse ecosystems, from sandy deserts to lush rain forests.

Map by the National Geographic Society

Largest Urban Area
Cairo, Egypt (10,900,000 people)

Highest Elevation
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (5,895 meters/19,341 feet)

Largest Watershed
Congo River (3,730,881 square kilometers/1,440,051 square miles)

Population Density
34 people per square kilometer

Amount of Renewable Electricity Produced
35% (top producer of renewable energy: Mozambique, 99.9%)

Africa, the second-largest continent, is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is divided in half almost equally by the Equator.

Africas physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

Africa has eight major physical regions: the Sahara, the Sahel, the Ethiopian Highlands, the savanna, the Swahili Coast, the rain forest, the African Great Lakes, and Southern Africa. Some of these regions cover large bands of the continent, such as the Sahara and Sahel, while others are isolated areas, such as the Ethiopian Highlands and the Great Lakes. Each of these regions has unique animal and plant communities.

Sahara

The Sahara is the worlds largest hot desert, covering 8.5 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles), about the size of the South American country of Brazil. Defining Africas northern bulge, the Sahara makes up 25 percent of the continent.

The Sahara has a number of distinct physical features, including ergs, regs, hamadas, and oases. Ergs, which cover 20 percent of the Sahara, are sand dunes that stretch for hundreds of kilometers at heights of more than 300 meters (1,000 feet). Ergs cover most of Algeria and Libya and parts of Mali and Nigeria. Ergs can contain large quantities of salt, which is sold for industrial and food use.

Regs are plains of sand and gravel that make up 70 percent of the Sahara. The gravel can be black, red, or white. Regs are the remains of prehistoric seabeds and riverbeds, but are now nearly waterless.

Hamadas are elevated plateaus of rock and stone that reach heights of 3,353 meters (11,000 feet). They include the Atlas Mountains, which stretch from southwestern Morocco to northeastern Tunisia; the Tibesti Mountains of southern Libya and northern Chad; and the Ahaggar Mountains in southern Algeria.

An oasis is a hub of water in the desert, often in the form of springs, wells, or irrigation systems. About 75 percent of the Saharas population lives in oases, which make up only 2,071 square kilometers (800 square miles) of the deserts vast area.

The Saharas animal and plant communities have adapted to the regions extremely dry conditions. The kidneys of the jerboa, a type of rodent, produce highly concentrated urine that minimizes water loss. A dromedary camel conserves water by changing its body temperature so it doesnt sweat as the day gets hotter. The scorpion limits its activities to night, burrowing into the cooler sands beneath the surface during the day. The scorpion, a predator, also absorbs water from the flesh of its prey.

Saharan plants survive thanks to root systems that plunge as far as 24 meters (80 feet) underground. In parts of the Sahara, plants cannot take root at all. In the southern Libyan Desert, for instance, no greenery exists for more than 195 kilometers (120 miles).

Sahel

The Sahel is a narrow band of semi-arid land that forms a transition zone between the Sahara to the north and the savannas to the south. It is made up of flat, barren plains that stretch roughly 5,400 kilometers (3,300 miles) across Africa, from Senegal to Sudan.

The Sahel contains the fertile delta of the Niger, one of Africas longest rivers. Unfortunately, the Sahels fertile land is rapidly becoming desert as a result of drought, deforestation, and intensive agriculture. This process is known as desertification.

The Sahels animal communities are constantly scavenging for scarce water and vegetation resources. The Senegal gerbil, the most common mammal in the Sahel and measuring only a few centimeters, consumes as much as 10 percent of the Sahels plants.

The Sahels green vegetation only emerges during the rainy season, but is often quickly harvested by farmers or consumed by animals. Baobabs are drought- and fire-resistant trees with trunks that are often 15 meters (50 feet) wide and as tall as 26 meters (85 feet). Acacia, whose deep root systems are ideal for semi-arid climates, are among the most common trees found in the Sahel. Cram-cram, a prickly grass, is the primary fodder for Sahel herds such as zebu cattle.

Ethiopian Highlands

The Ethiopian Highlands began to rise 75 million years ago, as magma from Earths mantle uplifted a broad dome of ancient rock. This dome was later split as Africas continental crust pulled apart, creating the Great Rift Valley system. Today, this valley cuts through the Ethiopian Highlands from the southwest to the northeast. The Ethiopian Highlands are home to 80 percent of Africas tallest mountains.

The highlands craggy landscape is perfect for nimble animal species. Native species such as the walia ibex, an endangered wild goat, and the gelada baboon live in the ledges and rocky outposts of the Simien Mountains. The most emblematic highlands species is probably the Ethiopian wolf, which is now on the brink of extinction.

Important plant species native to the Ethiopian Highlands include the Ethiopian rose, Africas only native rose, and the ensete, a tall, thick, rubbery plant that is a close relative of the banana.

Savanna

Savannas, or grasslands, cover almost half of Africa, more than 13 million square kilometers (5 million square miles). These grasslands make up most of central Africa, beginning south of the Sahara and the Sahel and ending north of the continents southern tip.

Among Africas many savanna regions, the Serengeti (or Serengeti Plains) is the most well-known. The Serengeti is a vast, undulating plain that stretches 30,000 square kilometers (11,583 square miles) from Kenyas Massai-Mara game reserve to Tanzanias Serengeti National Park.

The Serengeti is home to one of the continents highest concentrations of large mammal species, including lions, hyenas, zebras, giraffes, and elephants. Each year, more than 1 million wildebeest travel in a circular migration, following seasonal rains, across the Serengeti Plains. Their grazing and trampling of grass allows new grasses to grow, while their waste helps fertilize the soil.

Swahili Coast

The Swahili Coast stretches about 1,610 kilometers (1,000 miles) along the Indian Ocean, from Somalia to Mozambique. The nearby coral reefs and barrier islands protect the coast from severe weather.

There is not a lot of animal life on the sandy Swahili Coast. The golden-rumped elephant shrew, an insect-eating rodent with a long snout, is common. A small, primitive species of primate known as the bush baby inhabits vegetated areas of the Swahili Coast. Bush babies, which have enormous eyes for hunting at night, feed primarily on insects, fruit, and leaves.

These more vegetated areas are located on a narrow strip just inland from the coastal sands. Heavy cultivation has diminished the diversity of plant species in this interior area of the Swahili Coast. Mangrove forests are the most common vegetation. Mangroves have exposed root systems. This allows the trees to absorb oxygen directly from the air, as well as from the nutrient-poor soil.

Rain Forest

Most of Africas native rain forest has been destroyed by development, agriculture, and forestry. Today, 80 percent of Africas rain forest is concentrated in central Africa, along the Congo River basin.

Africas rain forests have a rich variety of animal life; a 6-kilometer (4-mile) patch could contain up to 400 bird species, 150 butterfly species, and 60 species of amphibians. Important mammals include African forest elephants, gorillas, the black colobus monkey, and the okapi, a donkey-like giraffe.

The driver ant is one of Africas most aggressive rain forest species. Driver ants move in columns of up to 20 million across the rain forest floor, and will eat anything from toxic millipedes to reptiles and small mammals.

The African rain forests plant community is even more diverse, with an estimated 8,000 plant species documented. More than 1,100 of these species are endemic, or found nowhere else on Earth. Only 10 percent of the plants in the African rain forest have been identified.

African Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are located in nine countries that surround the Great Rift Valley. As the African continent separated from Saudi Arabia, large, deep cracks were created in the Earths surface. These cracks were later filled with water. This geologic process created some of the largest and deepest lakes in the world.

There are seven major African Great Lakes: Lake Albert, Lake Edward, Lake Kivu, Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Turkana, and Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, is the southern source of the Nile River, the longest river in the world.

The African Great Lakes region has a diverse range of aquatic and terrestrial animal life. Fish include the 45-kilogram (100-pound) Nile perch and the 2.5-centimeter (1-inch) cichlid. Migrating savanna animals, such as wildebeest, use the lakes as watering holes. Hippos and crocodiles call the region their home.

The Great Lakes abut everything from rain forest to savanna plant communities. However, invasive species like the water hyacinth and papyrus have begun to take over entire shorelines, endangering animals and plants.

Southern Africa

The region of Southern Africa is dominated by the Kaapvaal craton, a shelf of bedrock that is more than 2.6 billion years old. Rocky features of Southern Africa include plateaus and mountains, such as the Drakensberg range.

Southern Africa is the epicenter of Africas well-known reserves, which protect animal species such as lions, elephants, baboons, white rhinos, and Burchells zebras. Other important animal species include the impala, a type of deer, and the springbok, a type of gazelle that can spring several feet into the air to avoid predators.

Southern Africas Cape Floral Region is one of the richest areas for plants in the world. While the Cape Floral Region covers less than 0.5 percent of Africa, it is home to nearly 20 percent of the continents flora. The giant protea, South Africas national flower, is found in the Cape Floral Region.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

agriculture

Noun

the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture

ancient

Adjective

very old.

aquatic

Adjective

having to do with water.

arid

Adjective

dry.

barrier island

Noun

long, narrow strip of sandy land built up by waves and tides that protects the mainland shore from erosion.

basin

Noun

a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

Encyclopedic Entry: basin

bedrock

Noun

solid rock beneath the Earth's soil and sand.

Encyclopedic Entry: bedrock

cattle

Noun

cows and oxen.

coast

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: coast

conserve

Verb

to save or use wisely.

consume

Verb

to use up.

continent

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: continent

coral reef

Noun

rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.

craggy

Adjective

rugged or rocky.

craton

Noun

old, stable part of continental crust, made up of shields and platforms.

cultivate

Verb

to prepare and nurture the land for crops.

deforestation

Noun

destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

delta

Noun

the flat, low-lying plain that sometimes forms at the mouth of a river from deposits of sediments.

Encyclopedic Entry: delta

desert

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Encyclopedic Entry: desert

desertification

Noun

the spread of desert conditions in arid regions, usually caused by human activity.

development

Noun

construction or preparation of land for housing, industry, or agriculture.

diverse

Adjective

varied or having many different types.

dome

Noun

shape that is half of a sphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: dome

dromedary camel

Noun

large pack animal with one hump, native to North Africa and the Middle East.

drought

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Encyclopedic Entry: drought

emblematic

Adjective

symbolic or representative.

endanger

Verb

to put at risk.

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

Equator

Noun

imaginary line around the Earth, another planet, or star running east-west, 0 degrees latitude.

Encyclopedic Entry: equator

erg

Noun

vast area covered with sand dunes.

extinction

Noun

process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

fertile

Adjective

able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

flora

Noun

plants associated with an area or time period.

fodder

Noun

food for livestock consisting of whole plants.

forestry

Noun

management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.

game reserve

Noun

area of land filled with wildlife and preserved for hunting or tourism.

geologic

Adjective

having to do with the physical formations of the Earth.

grassland

Noun

ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

gravel

Noun

small stones or pebbles.

hamada

Noun

desert landscape with rocky plateaus and little soil, sand, or vegetation.

herd

Noun

group of animals.

human geography

Noun

the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.

industrial

Adjective

having to do with factories or mechanical production.

invasive species

Noun

type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.

Encyclopedic Entry: invasive species

irrigation

Noun

watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.

Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation

kidney

Noun

organ that removes the waste products from blood and helps regulate general health.

lake

Noun

body of water surrounded by land.

landscape

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

Encyclopedic Entry: landscape

magma

Noun

molten, or partially melted, rock beneath the Earth's surface.

Encyclopedic Entry: magma

mangrove

Noun

type of tree or shrub with long, thick roots that grows in salty water.

mantle

Noun

middle layer of the Earth, made of mostly solid rock.

Encyclopedic Entry: mantle

migration

Noun

movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

nimble

Adjective

swift and agile.

nutrient

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient

oasis

Noun

area made fertile by a source of fresh water in an otherwise arid region.

Encyclopedic Entry: oasis

physical geography

Noun

study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

plain

Noun

flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

Encyclopedic Entry: plain

plateau

Noun

large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

Encyclopedic Entry: plateau

predator

Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

prehistoric

Adjective

period of time that occurred before the invention of written records.

prey

Noun

animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

primate

Noun

type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.

primitive

Adjective

simple or crude.

rain forest

Noun

area of tall evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

reg

Noun

hard plains of sand, gravel, and rock. Also called desert pavement.

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

root system

Noun

all of a plant's roots.

Sahel

Noun

transition zone in northern Africa between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savanna ecosystems in the south.

salt

Noun

mineral often used as a preservative or flavoring.

sand dune

Noun

mound of sand created by the wind.

savanna

Noun

type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.

scavenge

Verb

to feed on dead or decaying material.

snout

Noun

protruding nose and jaw of an animal such as a pig.

soil

Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

source

Noun

beginning of a stream, river, or other flow of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: source

spring

Noun

small flow of water flowing naturally from an underground water source.

terrestrial

Adjective

having to do with the Earth or dry land.

toxic

Adjective

poisonous.

transition zone

Noun

area between two natural or artificial regions.

vegetation

Noun

all the plant life of a specific place.

watering hole

Noun

small pond or spring where animals travel to drink.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Diane Boudreau
Andrew Turgeon

Illustrator

Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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