Wealth of biodiversity in Africa possibly fed by 'natural Great Wall’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 8:19pm

A "natural Great Wall” may have spurred biodiversity in East Africa, according to an international study led by Chinese researchers. 

A rare plant species that grows on neighbouring mountains suggested no sign of genetic intermingling, despite the mountains being as close as 30km in some areas, the team found. 

Genetic analysis showed that the hairy and non-hairy cousins of the flowering plant, called Haplocarpha rueppelii (Sch.Bip.) Beauverd, might not have had any contact in as long as two million years regardless of their proximity. The plant can only be found in the alpine grasslands of East Africa.

“This is the power of the ‘Great Wall’, though it is not built by humans this time, but nature,” said Professor Wang Qingfeng, lead author of the paper. Wang is a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Wuhan Botanical Garden. 

Africa is a “treasure chest for original discoveries” and a natural laboratory for studies in evolution, among other areas, he added.

The paper was published in the latest issue of the journal Science Bulletin

The project is being overseen by the China-Africa Joint Research Centre, which was established in Kenya after Premier Li Keqiang visited Africa last year. At the time, Li pledged over US$30 billion in loans and aid to African nations.

The team’s expeditions were funded by the Chinese government and conducted over several years.

In this case, specimens of the rare plant were taken from Mount Aberdare, north of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Africa. They were later taken to China and analysed at the botanical garden in central Hubei province. 

Scientists were surprised to find that the first specimen had hairy leaves and stalks, while the plants plucked from Mount Kenya were entirely bald. 

The desert and wasteland between the two mountains could have thrown up a geographical barrier blocking biological exchanges, the team said.

It plans to conduct more studies to see the effect on other flora in the area, in a bid to pin down why the region is so rich in biodiversity. 

The findings could help with environmental preservation efforts, the team said. 

There is "definitely a race between China and the West" in terms of making scientific discoveries in Africa, said Wang, who frequently travels to the continent.

Now China has the financial and other resources to compete with more developed countries, he said. 

In the past, Chinese researchers rarely made original discoveries in the natural sciences on foreign shores.

But the scope of their research activities has grown considerably in the last few years due to changes in government funding policy.

Now, they can be found engaging in a wide range of government-funded projects in exotic locations such as the Amazon rainforest, the Iranian highlands, the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, and the Indian Ocean seabed.