Space may be the final frontier, but scientists who recently discovered a hidden forest in Mozambique show the uncharted can still be under our noses. BirdLife were part of a team of scientists who used Google Earth to identify a remote patch of pristine forest. An expedition to the site discovered new species of butterfly and snake, along with seven Globally Threatened birds.
The team were browsing Google Earth – freely available software providing global satellite photography – to search for potential wildlife hotspots. A nearby road provided the first glimpses of a wooded mountain topped by bare rock. However, only by using Google Earth could the scientists observe the extent of woodland on the other side of the peak. This was later discovered to be the locally known, but unmapped, Mount Mabu. Scientific collections and literature also failed to shed light on the area.
“This is potentially the biggest area of medium-altitude forest I’m aware of in southern Africa, yet it was not on the map”, related Jonathan Timberlake from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), who led the expedition. “Most Mozambicans would not even have recognised the name Mount Mabu.”
Following scoping trips, a team of 28 experts from the UK, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Belgium, Ireland, and Switzerland ventured into it last autumn. They included scientists from BirdLife. The group was able to stay in an abandoned tea estate where the road ended, but had to hike the last few kilometres into the forest to set up camp. They had to contend with steep terrain and dense vegetation.
Inside, they found a wealth of wildlife, including three new species of butterfly and an undiscovered species of adder. The scientists believe there are at least two novel species of plant and perhaps more new insects to identify. They took home over 500 samples. “The phenomenal diversity is just mind-boggling”, exclaimed Jonathan Timberlake. Despite civil war from 1975 to 1992 ravaging parts of Mozambique, the landscape was found virtually untouched.