African Plants & Animals

By Randy Nicholas
Africa boasts an extremely diverse range of plant and animal species.

The continent of Africa has the second largest land mass and human population in the world. Africa is considered by many paleoanthropologists to be the birth place of humanity as well as the oldest inhabited place on the planet. Africa is divided into 61 countries or territories, and the climate ranges from dry desert to tropical rain forest. According to the National Audubon Society, the high degree of climate variation across the continent has led to exceptional diversity in African plants and animals. Africa has many uncharted regions and areas that are difficult for scientists to reach, which means that many species numbers are only rough estimates. New species are discovered in Africa on a regular basis.

Insects and Fish

Africa has the largest number of freshwater fish species.

Africa has a rich diversity of insect life, with some estimates saying that 15 to 20 percent of all insects on the planet live there. There are many thousands of species of insects categorized in Africa. The continent has dragonflies, migratory and desert locusts, flies, bees, ants, beetles and butterflies. According to Hart and Pitcher in their book "The Impact of Species Changes in African Lakes," Africa has the largest amount of freshwater fish species in the world at around 3,000, including more than two-thirds of the world's cichlid population. Marine diversity is greatest on the west coast with over 2,000 species of fish cataloged.

Mammals

Some of the largest land mammals live in Africa.

Bryan Shorrocks, the author of "The Biology of African Savannahs," notes that the vast stretches of desert and grassland, and volatile seasons of dry and wet periods have led to some of the largest animal migrations on Earth. Africa boasts over 1,100 species of mammals, including herd animals like wildebeest, buffalo and impala, as well as zebras, giraffes and elephants. The rodents are well represented with various squirrel and rat species, as well as rabbits and hares. There are over 60 species of carnivores, including lions, cheetahs, hyenas and leopards. Africa is also the home to the four great ape species, including the western and eastern gorillas, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo, as well as many other primate species.

Amphibians and Reptiles

Africa is home to many types of reptiles and amphibians.

The varied climate of Africa allows for the existence of many amphibians and reptiles. Tom Jackson, author of many ecology and biology books, says that Africa's claim to amphibian fame is the Goliath frog, which is the largest frog in the world. It is also home to many other amphibians, like the African clawed frog and the African dwarf frog. As for reptiles, Africa has chameleons, cobras, vipers, pythons and many species of lizards such as geckos. Additionally, larger reptiles like tortoises, turtles and crocodiles also inhabit Africa.

Birds

There are more than 2,500 species of birds living permanently or temporarily in African ecosystems.

Africa has thousands of bird species, and many that cannot be found anywhere else. One of the most well-known African native birds is the ostrich, but also endemic to the continent are sunbirds, guinea fowl and mousebirds. A range of songbirds like weavers, waxbills and firefinches can also be found. Another notable resident is the red-billed quelea, which is the most populous bird species on Earth. Africa's only penguin species, the African or black-footed penguin, can be found along the coasts of southwest Africa.

Acacias

Acacias are a signature tree of Africa.

There are about 700 species of acacia in Africa. Acacia trees are adapted to hot and dry climates, and they grow over much of sub-Saharan Africa. Since they grow in dry landscapes, their edible leaves are often the only available greenery, and so acacias have developed thorns to keep away most animals. Exceptions are giraffes and insects which are unaffected by the thorns. As part of the legume family, these trees improve soil fertility because nitrogen is fixed to soil particles by microbial activity on the tree's roots. Acacia wood is also an effective burning fuel for cooking and other heating requirements.

Aloes

Aloe gel is a popular additive to skin care products.

Many different species of aloe grow on the African landscape, including the most famous of these, Aloe vera. Aloes are succulent plants with sweet nectar that attract many birds and contain many medicinal and therapeutic properties. Aloe gel, made from the inner flesh of aloe leaves, is used in moisturizers and conditioners to help keep skin hydrated. According to Stephanie Rose Bird, when the plant resin is eaten it can act as a laxative to treat stomach problems. In addition to their practical uses, many aloes are used for decoration because they flower in vibrant reds against the dull landscape during the cold winter months in southern Africa.

Other Trees

Africa is home to one native species of baobab tree. These trees may be the oldest living things on the continent, with some measured at over 3,000 years old. They flower at night hoping to attract bats, and many small animals and insects make their entire living in the trunks of baobab trees. Fig trees can be found sparsely in many African landscapes, providing abundant fruit for animals and humans alike. The marula tree is another tree in Africa which typically prefers to grow in wooded savanna regions. Among many uses in nature, marula trees are used to make jams, jellies, wines and beers.

About the Author

Randy Nicholas has been writing professionally since 2002. He started by writing and editing technical and training manuals, developing educational curricula, and designing corporate policies, plans, and processes. His more creative work has been featured in "The Danforth Review," and "Inscribed: A Magazine for Writers."