Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 11:51 UK

Exploring the 'Google forest'

By Jonah Fisher
BBC News


Professor Bill Branch explains how to hunt chameleons at night

Hunting chameleons is a night-time activity, but there's no need for stealth or even speed.

With the protection of darkness, chameleons give up on camouflage.

Sleeping on the low-lying branches of bushes in Mount Mabu, northern Mozambique, they're easy to spot by torchlight. White lizards with their eyes defiantly shut.

A new species of chameleon?

"We're not sure if it is a new species; I rather suspect it may be," Professor Bill Branch, one of Africa's leading reptile specialists, explains to me as we watch one chameleon standing statuesque on a branch.

For the first reptile expert to ever visit Mount Mabu, the hunt for new lizards and snakes is proving rather easy.

Of the seven species that Professor Branch has caught so far, only one is definitely not new to science.

Untouched landscape

Five years ago, few knew there was a forest here. Its discovery by the scientific community is down to a very 21st-Century research tool.

"I used Google Earth to locate all the mountains over 1,500m that were closest to Mount Mulanje in Southern Malawi," Dr Julian Bayliss, head of the cross-border conservation project, told me.

"Mount Mabu was selected through Google Earth as one of these sights."

Dr Julian Bayliss in Mount Mabu
Dr Bayliss hopes to prove that Mount Mabu merits official protection

Dr Bayliss's project, funded through a British scheme called the Darwin Initiative, looked for similarities between different patches of medium altitude rainforest.

When images of Mount Mabu were analysed, it became clear that there was a large patch of dark green of which there was no official record.

A quickly arranged visit to northern Mozambique confirmed what Dr Bayliss had suspected.

"It was at that stage I realised that we were dealing with what looks like the biggest rainforest in Southern Africa," he said.

Travelling with Dr Bayliss and a team of scientists on to Mabu, I saw what had so excited them.

Unlike most of the forests in southern Africa there was no sign of any logging or burning having taken place. The 7,000 hectares of Mount Mabu are in pristine condition.

New species

"This is an island of evergreen forest in a sea of savannah," Professor Branch said.

What that means is that the animals inside Mabu have had very little interaction with other groups of forest dwellers.

There are definitely new species to be found in all types of animals here on Mabu
Julian Bayliss, biologist

Unable to walk across the dry lowlands to mountain forest elsewhere, they have evolved in isolation to suit Mabu's own type of wet forest.

That now translates into many of the species being new to science.

Declaring a new species is a process fraught with the fear of being proved wrong. But Mabu's scientists are quietly confident that, in the last year, they have found more than 10 new species.

"Whatever we see we pick up, and there's a high probability that it's going to be a new species," Dr Bayliss said.

His own specific passion is butterflies. I watched his eclectic team, which included a 75-year-old enthusiast, as they scoured the forest canopy for new discoveries.

They weren't disappointed. Four new butterflies are set to be confirmed, with one of them likely to bear Dr Bayliss's name.

Though butterflies are his first love, Dr Bayliss showed a boyish enthusiasm for finding all things new.

I watched him trap bats and crabs, shrews and snails before carefully preserving them in ethanol to be sent off for further analysis.

"There are definitely new species to be found in all types of animals here on Mabu," he told me as we sat around the campfire.


Butterfly enthusiast Colin Congdon joins the researchers in their hunt

With only an eighth of the forest having undergone even a cursory scientific investigation, it's hard to disagree.

I even managed to inadvertently get in on the act. Sat on the forest floor, I picked at a piece of rotten wood with a knife.

A small insect, perhaps three millimetres long dropped out on to my hand.

It looked liked a scorpion, but I stopped myself from throwing it away.

"This a pseudo-scorpion," Dr Bayliss told me as I presented it to him in a plastic pot. "It pretends to look like a scorpion to scare off predators.

"Not much is known about these - we'll send it off and I'd reckon there's a 90% chance that it's new."

Mount Mabu forest
The area is in pristine condition

For Mount Mabu the discovery of new species has a broader significance. On 18 June experts from Mozambique, the World Bank and the UK will meet in Maputo.

The scientists are hoping their discoveries prove that Mount Mabu is a unique habitat, and that it merits official protection.

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