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Disjunct distributions of freshwater snails testify to a central role of the Congo system in shaping biogeographical patterns in Africa

Roland Schultheiß12*, Bert Van Bocxlaer34, Frank Riedel56, Thomas von Rintelen7 and Christian Albrecht2

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Genetics and Physiology, Department of Biology, University of Turku, Itäinen Pitkäkatu 4, 20014 Turku, Finland

2 Department of Animal Ecology & Systematics, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Heinrich-Buff-Ring 26-32, Giessen 35392, Germany

3 Departments of Paleobiology and Invertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20013, USA

4 Research Unit Palaeontology, Department of Geology and Soil Science, Ghent University, Krijgslaan 281 S8, Ghent 9000, Belgium

5 Institute of Geological Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, Malteserstr 74-100, Berlin 12249, Germany

6 Key Laboratory of Plateau Lake Ecology and Global Change, Yunnan Normal University, No. 1 Yuhua District, Chenggong, Kunming, China

7 Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Invalidenstrasse 43, Berlin 10115, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:42  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-42

Published: 6 March 2014



The formation of the East African Rift System has decisively influenced the distribution and evolution of tropical Africa’s biota by altering climate conditions, by creating basins for large long-lived lakes, and by affecting the catchment and drainage directions of river systems. However, it remains unclear how rifting affected the biogeographical patterns of freshwater biota through time on a continental scale, which is further complicated by the scarcity of molecular data from the largest African river system, the Congo.


We study these biogeographical patterns using a fossil-calibrated multi-locus phylogeny of the gastropod family Viviparidae. This group allows reconstructing drainage patterns exceptionally well because it disperses very poorly in the absence of existing freshwater connections. Our phylogeny covers localities from major drainage basins of tropical Africa and reveals highly disjunct sister-group relationships between (a) the endemic viviparids of Lake Malawi and populations from the Middle Congo as well as between (b) the Victoria region and the Okavango/Upper Zambezi area.


The current study testifies to repeated disruptions of the distribution of the Viviparidae during the formation of the East African Rift System, and to a central role of the Congo River system for the distribution of the continent’s freshwater fauna during the late Cenozoic. By integrating our results with previous findings on palaeohydrographical connections, we provide a spatially and temporarily explicit model of historical freshwater biogeography in tropical Africa. Finally, we review similarities and differences in patterns of vertebrate and invertebrate dispersal. Amongst others we argue that the closest relatives of present day viviparids in Lake Malawi are living in the Middle Congo River, thus shedding new light on the origin of the endemic fauna of this rift lake.

Freshwater biogeography; East African Rift System; Congo; Lake Malawi; Lake Tanganyika; Zambezi