News Release

Google Earth reveals hidden oasis

26 January 2009
Pygmy chameleon (Photo © Julian Bayliss RBG Kew)

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.

Inside the forest, the Expedition Team 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 (Expedition Leader, RBG Kew). Despite civil war from 1975 to 1992 ravaging parts of Mozambique, the landscape was found virtually untouched.

The site also proved to be important for birds, especially Endangered Thyolo Alethe Alethe choloensis, which is common throughout. "This may be the most important population of Thyolo Alethe known", remarked Dr Lincoln Fishpool, BirdLife's Global IBA Co-ordinator, who joined the expedition. "At other sites, forest is rapidly being lost or much of the habitat is sub-optimal". There were six other globally threatened birds among the 126 species identified. Of these, Vulnerable Swynnerton's Robin Swynnertonia swynnertoni is particularly significant - bridging a large gap between known populations. Mozambique's only endemic species, Near Threatened Namuli Apalis Apalis lynesi, was also seen. This was the first record of it away from nearby Mount Namuli.

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