Delta Lions To Olympic Athletes: How Environment Impacts Body Shape

In northern Botswana lies a huge inland delta where the Okavango river reaches a tectonic trough and cascades outwards into one of Africa’s seven natural wonders.


Once a year floodwaters from the mountainous regions of Angola, thousands of kilometres away, descend upon this wildlife oasis and turn the delta into a rich bathing ground of rivers, swamps, pools, lakes, channels and islands. Throughout this time the local lion population must spend their time swimming from island to island in pursuit of food and shelter. As a result of this muscular stress the lions of the Okavango develop larger and stronger fore-quarters than their relatives found in nearby regions.

The environment has quite literally shaped their body!

We humans are no-less impacted by the demands of our chosen habitat and the recently finished Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro perfectly highlights this point.

  • Kayakers who spend a large chunks of time in the water powerfully paddling against absurdly strong currents develop huge upper bodies, shoulders and arms
  • Sprint cyclists who spend large chunks of time tearing around the velodrome at high speed develop strong, powerful thighs
  • Endurance athletes who spend large chunks of time covering enormous distances develop wiry, light and minimally-muscled physiques
  • Decathletes who split their time sprinting, throwing, jumping and running develop a broad range of physical capabilities and an athletic body to match

Naturally our genetic coding plays a large part in shaping our bodies (and will predispose athletes to become successful at certain sports) but it is not the whole picture. Our body shape is a reflection of our genetic programming coupled with the environment we place ourselves in.

We can expose our body to an environment which positively impacts our body shape and optimises our gene expression (intense exercise, regular movement, nutritious food) or we can spend our time in an environment which negatively impacts our body shape and diminishes our gene expression (chairs, screens and junk food).

Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom the choice is ours.