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Expedition discovers new chameleon

Scientific team in Mozambique also finds new reptiles and butterflies

MOUNT MABU, Mozambique — The normally serious British scientist shouts with delight like a young boy.

“This is new to science!” he exclaims, pointing to the small reptile blinking at his flashlight.  “We came here especially to find a new species of chameleon, and this is it!”

He handles the tiny little hatchling chameleon with care, like a lady looking over a fine diamond.

It’s late, and in June it's cold in the Mozambican rainforest, but Branch's excitement brings others in the camp out of their beds, and soon many of the team members are wandering the forest floor like fireflies, shining their flashlights and looking into the little branches of small trees for chameleons.

The little chameleons are everywhere, and even the untrained eye can pick them out among the foliage, about a meter high, every ten meters or so. They sleep above the ground, away from predators, and when caught in the harsh glare of the flashlight they resent the intrusion, searching with sleep-stuck eyes for the chameleon equivalent of a cup of hot black coffee. Or at least more sleep.

The days and nights of the scientists were filled with discoveries and confirmations of a stunning array of new species of animals and plants. The exploration of this mountain and the surrounding rainforest was undertaken by the Darwin Initiative team, led by Julian Bayliss of Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) and in partnership with the Mozambican government’s Department of Agricultural Research (IIAM). They had made earlier exploratory forays into the area and they returned to Mount Mabu in June for their final research trip.

On previous trips researchers generally take their finds back to the laboratory and consult with senior scientists. For the June trip, the team included leading scientists such as Bill Branch, an  esteemed herpetologist in southern Africa, and the author of many definitive works as well as Steve Collins, the head of the African Butterfly Research Institute (ABRI) in Kenya. These giants of their fields are able to confirm potential finds with a more practiced opinion, and in some cases can confirm a new species right there in the forest. That they joined the expedition is testament to the importance of this hotbed of biodiversity.