Ethiopian highlands identified as the cradle of eastern afromontane shrew diversity

24. 01. 2024

A breakthrough study, led by Czech scientists, has revealed how biological diversity originated in one of the world’s most significant biodiversity centres. The most extensive genetic study of African small insectivores, shrews, published in the Journal of Biogeography, unveiled secrets related to the origin, spreading patterns, and unusual diversification of mountain mammals in sub-Saharan Africa.

The East Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot is known for its unique ecological features and enormous biological diversity, stretching from Saudi Arabia and Yemen to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The largest part of this range is formed by the Ethiopian Highlands. It has provided a stable refuge for mountain flora and fauna during climatic fluctuations over the last 30 million years. In contrast, many mountains south of Ethiopia, including isolated volcanoes like Mount Kilimanjaro, were formed relatively recently during the Pleistocene (about 2 million years). The unique diversity of mountain fauna and flora in East Africa results from the complex geomorphology of the East African Rift and the influence of climate changes over the past few million years.

Given the area’s size and stability, it might be expected that the extensive Ethiopian Highlands would host the highest biological diversity. However, the highest numbers of formally described species were found in former British colonies, such as the mountains of Uganda or Kenya, where British taxonomists were active in the early 20th century. Evolutionary studies based on biological patterns from the entire area have been lacking until now.

In the recently published work, scientists focused on shrews, small insectivorous mammals with over 220 described species, making them the most species-rich mammal genus globally. Half of these species are found in Africa. Biologists from the Institute of Vertebrate Biology of the Czech Academy of Sciences (IVB CAS) and Masaryk University, along with colleagues from other countries, gathered genetic data from 511 shrew samples from across the East Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot. It is the most extensive genetic dataset on African insectivores to date.

Read more here.

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