The Atlas Mountains is a mountain range across the northwestern stretch of Africa extending about 2,500 km (1,600 mi) through Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The highest peak is Toubkal, with an elevation of 4,165 metres (13,665 ft) in southwestern Morocco.
The Atlas ranges separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert. The population of the Atlas Mountains is mainly Berbers. The terms for 'mountain' in some Berber languages are adrar and adras, believed to be cognate with the toponym.
The mountains have been home to a number of plant and animal species unique in Africa, often more like those of Europe; many of them are endangered and some have already gone extinct. Examples include the Barbary Macaque, the Atlas Bear, the Barbary Leopard, the Barbary stag, Barbary Sheep, the Barbary Lion (extinct in the wild), the Atlas Mountain Badger, the North African Elephant (extinct), the African Aurochs (extinct), Cuvier's Gazelle, the Northern Bald Ibis, Dippers, the Atlas mountain viper, the Atlas Cedar, the European Black Pine, and the Algerian Oak.
The basement rock of most of Africa was formed in the Precambrian and is much older than the Atlas mountains lying in Africa. The Atlas formed during three subsequent phases of Earth's history. The first tectonic deformation phase involves only the Anti-Atlas, which was formed in the Paleozoic Era as the result of continental collisions. North America, Europe and Africa were connected millions of years ago.
The Anti-Atlas mountains are believed to have originally been formed as part of Alleghenian orogeny. These mountains were formed when Africa and America collided, and were once a chain rivaling today's Himalayas. Today, the remains of this chain can be seen in the Fall line in the eastern United States. Some remnants can also be found in the later formed Appalachians in North America.
A second phase took place during the Mesozoic Era and consisted of a widespread extension of the Earth's crust that rifted and separated the continents mentioned above. This extension was responsible for the formation of many thick intracontinental sedimentary basins including the present Atlas. Most of the rocks forming the surface of the present High Atlas were deposited under the ocean at that time.