05/06/2014 04:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Google Earth Led to the Discovery of a Long-Lost Forest

By Ken Jennings,


The age of exploration is usually said to have ended in the late 1600s, when European settlements had been established on most of the world's continents and the search for new trade routes was pretty much over. But that doesn't mean the globe was fully mapped, not by a long ways. In 2005, for example, a biologist at London's Kew Gardens discovered a brand new rainforest. And he didn't find it on our Earth. He found it on Google Earth.

Julian Bayliss, a British scientist specializing in plant conservation, was browsing for possible African rainforest sites on Google Earth when he stumbled on aerial photographs of Mount Mabu, a lush peak rising above the savannah of central Mozambique. He was surprised to find 27 square miles of medium-altitude rainforest -- the largest in Africa -- that, to his knowledge, no one had ever studied.

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How could a whole rainforest hide in plain sight for so long? Locals in the area knew about Mount Mabu, of course, but the combination of a lack of roads in the area and a long-running civil war had kept outsiders away. Mount Mabu -- the "Google Forest," as it came to be called -- had never been logged. It had never even been mapped.

What the first Kew botanists found when they hiked Mount Mabu surpassed even their wildest expectations. Thousands of species of orchids and other exotic tropical plants, hundreds of kinds of butterflies and rare or endangered birds, as well as antelopes, monkeys, and reptiles, all spotted on the first expedition alone. The team thinks that over a dozen previously unknown species are among the haul, including a new kind of pygmy chameleon, a freshwater crab, bats, a scorpion, and three snakes.

The government of Mozambique has moved to protect Mount Mabu from commercial logging, so there may be decades of new discoveries to come from "Google Forest." "People say there is nothing left to be discovered in the world," wrote Dr. Bayliss, "but there are new species to be discovered. Lost worlds to be found."

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