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Throughout history, rivers have provided sustenance, served as a form of transport, and facilitated the rise of mighty empires. They've given life to diverse ecosystems and inspired tales of adventure and discovery. This article covers seven of the world's most famous rivers, providing overviews and facts about local wildlife and plants.
7 Famous Rivers of the World
- The Nile (North Africa)
- The Amazon (South America)
- The Yangtze (China)
- The Congo (Central Africa)
- The Mississippi (North America)
- The Volga (Russia)
- The Danube (Central and Eastern Europe)
1. The Nile (North Africa)
Length: 6690 km
Source: Lake Victoria (bordering Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda)
The river that gave rise to the mighty Egyptian empire flows through lakes, jungles, and deserts before emptying into the sea. It is the longest river in the world, feeding nutrient-rich soil that makes it possible for people to survive amid the Sahara — the world's hottest desert.
Ancient Egyptian Gods
The ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile reflected the Milky Way and that the sun god Ra sailed these stars the same way Egyptians sailed the Nile.
The ancient Egyptian city of Shedet, situated on the banks of the Nile, worshipped a crocodile god known as Sobek. Ancient Greeks named the city 'Crocodilopolis' in reference to its deity.
Plants of the Nile
Papyrus grows on the shores of the river, the plant that the ancient Egyptians used as paper.
Bamboo is another iconic Nile plant, being the one that Moses' mother used to craft the basket that saved him from the Pharoah's wrath.
- Nile crocodile (the second largest crocodilian species on Earth, after the saltwater crocodile)
- Nile Perch (a fish that can grow up to 2 meters long)
- Softshell turtle
- 30 species of snakes
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2. The Amazon (South America)
Length: 6296 km
Source: Andes Mountains in Peru
Outflow: Atlantic Ocean
The second longest river on Earth is the lifeblood of the world's largest rainforest, which covers 40% of Brazil. It is responsible for 20% of all freshwater discharged into the ocean.
Forged by Tectonic Shifts
Millions of years ago, the Amazon River flowed in the opposite direction. South America's collision with the Pacific tectonic plate created the Andes Mountains, which blocked the river and caused it to form a lake.
Further movements of the Earth caused that lake to burst open as the water rushed forth into the Atlantic Ocean, forming the river we know today.
Settlements on the Amazon River
Indigenous people depend on the river for transport and sustenance. They include tribes that have had little to no contact with the outside world, such as the Waodani, whose language has no links to any known dialect.
The river provides access to Iquitos, a city so deep in the Peruvian Amazon that it can only be reached by water or air.
- Pink river dolphins (some indigenous tribes believe these mystical creatures take human form and walk the river banks at night)
- Amazonian Manatee (a distant relative of elephants)
- Electric eels
- Black caiman
- Giant otters
- Bull sharks
3. The Yangtze (China)
Length: 5797 km
Source: Tibetan plateau
Outflow: China Sea
The world's third longest river is a vital asset to the Chinese economy, supplying over 40% of the country's GDP. This includes agricultural products such as rice and soy. It also provides drinking water to 400 million people.
Three Gorges Dam
The famous dam provides hydroelectric power and is large enough for ocean-going vessels to navigate.
It is a controversial feature. On the one hand, it helps power China's robust economy; on the other, it has caused significant damage to the natural environment.
- Finless porpoise
- Chinese alligator
- Chinese giant salamander
- Yangtze sturgeon
The surrounding environment is home to iconic Chinese animals such as the giant panda and golden monkey.
The river was once home to dolphins, but they sadly went extinct. An ancient myth claims that a princess who refused to marry was cast into the river by her father and reincarnated as a dolphin.
4. The Congo (Central Africa)
Length: 4371 km
Source: Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa (Malawi)
Outflow: Atlantic Ocean
At 220m in depth, the Congo is the world's deepest river while also being the lifeblood of its second-largest rainforest. The river flows throughout Central Africa, passing through at least seven countries and crossing the equator twice. The jungle surrounding it sustains 75 million people, including tribes that have maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for millennia.
The Loch Ness of the Congo
Legends tell of a beast known as mokele-mbembe ("one who stops the flow of rivers"). The giant dinosaur-like creature supposedly dwells in the river, though none have been able to provide proof of its existence.
The Border Between the Great Apes
Humanity's two closest relatives — the chimpanzee and the bonobo, live in the Congo Jungle, though they are separated by the river (the chimps live north of the river bank while the bonobos live to the south).
The two great apes have similar genetics (they both share 98.7% of our DNA) yet have forged two vastly different societies. One major difference is that the bonobos are matriarchial, while alpha males govern the chimps.
It's unclear what caused this divergence in social structures, but the fact that the two species arose on opposite sides of the river may have contributed. The southern side contains more food. Could this be why the bonobos have created a more peaceful society?
- Semiaquatic tortoises
- Water snakes
- Over 300 species of fish
- Mondelli Bureau ("white man in the office", is a blind, pale fish that lives in the deepest parts of the river — it was only recently discovered)
5. The Mississippi (North America)
Length: 3779 km
Source: Lake Itasca, Minnesota
Outflow: Gulf of Mexico
The river that inspired the writings of Mark Twain has been a hub of human activity for centuries. Twain believed people focused too much on the commercial value of the river and ignored the more adventurous segments.
River of Industry
Steamboats once sailed up and down the river, and they remain a vital form of transport. 60% of grain exported by the US is shipped through the ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana.
Native Americans have lived on the banks of the river since at least 4000 BC. In the Algonquian language, its name translates as "father of waters".
- 120 species of fish
- Bull sharks
- Water snakes (such as the deadly cottonmouth)
6. The Volga (Russia)
Length: 3687 km
Source: Valdai plateau, Russia
Outflow: Caspian Sea
Europe's longest river flows from the heights of the Valdai mountains (228 meters above sea level) down through the forests and tundras of Russia. With such icy origins, it's no surprise that snow accounts for 60% of the river's discharge. At least 50% of Russia's population lives in the river's basin.
Vikings of the Volga
Viking traders used the river to travel from the Gulf of Finland to the great city of Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was also a means for them to access the Arabian Caliphates, although this required them to sail into the Caspian Sea and travel the rest of the way overland.
The Vikings navigated the treacherous rapids and had to stop and carry their longboats overland at various points to avoid particularly tumultuous parts of the river. They established trading posts that would grow to great cities such as Novgorod.
- Russian desman (a semiaquatic mammal that looks like a mix between a rodent and a bird)
- 120 species of fish (including catfish, sturgeon and carp)
7. The Danube (Central and Eastern Europe)
Length: 2842 km
Source: Black Forest, Germany
Outflow: Black Sea
Europe's second largest river flows through majestic mountains such as the Austrian Alps and the Western Carpathian, as well as a narrow gorge known as the Iron Gates. Ancient Greek traders were using the river as far back as 700 BC, and today it serves as a major source of hydropower, fish and drinking water.
The Borders of the Roman Empire
Just as Hadrian's Wall formed the boundary to Roman expansion into Briton, so did the Danube mark its border with Europe. Beyond lurked a hostile landscape where fearsome barbarians (and who knows what else) roamed.
Roman forts established along the river grew into vibrant cities such as Vienna and Budapest.
The river has long inspired European art, including the famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau ("The Blue Danube"), composed by Johann Strauss the Younger in 1867.
- Anube salmon
- Dalmatian Pelican
- Great White Pelican
- European kingfisher
- Giant sturgeon (they can grow as large as 6 meters)
Sources and Further Reading
- Nile River | National Geographic
The Nile River flows over 6,600 kilometers (4,100 miles) until emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. For thousands of years, the river has provided a source of irrigation to transform the dry area around it into lush agricultural land. Today, the rive
- Amazon River – Facts, History, Location, Length, Animals, & Map | Britannica
Amazon River, Portuguese Rio Amazonas, Spanish Río Amazonas, also called Río Marañón and Rio Solimões, the greatest river of South America and the largest drainage system in the world in terms of the volume of its flow and the area of its basin.
- Yangtze River – Places | WWF
Learn about the animals and people of the Yangtze region, including the Yangtze river, as well as the threats it faces, what WWF is doing, and how you can help.
- Mississippi River Facts | U.S. National Park Service
- Volga River – Map, Definition, Economy, & Facts | Britannica
Volga River, Russian Volga, ancient (Greek) Ra or (Tatar) Itil or Etil, river of Europe, the continent’s longest, and the principal waterway of western Russia and the historic cradle of the Russian state.