Expedition discovers new chameleon

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.

New species are rare. Werner Conradie, a doctoral student working with professor Branch on Mozambique’s Mount Mabu, puts it into perspective.

“Some people take years, maybe a lifetime, to find one new species. As a young scientist it’s a dream to find new species, and at this moment, being in this place, anything can be new,” said Conradie. There are a lot of new species on Mount Mabu, but it is unprotected, and for the team that has made these exciting discoveries, this is something that they would like to change.

Mount Mabu is an isolated mountain that rises more than a mile above sea level in Mozambique’s Zambezia Province. It is called an isolate, and isolates, like islands, breed unique species. The area has been isolated for so long that species adapt and evolve to suit that specific environment, occurring there and no place else.

Think of Darwin’s famous finches from the Galapagos Islands. They lived on separate islands, far enough away so that they could not fly between them. They evolved into different species of finches and each species was endemic to a separate island.

When new species are collected and studied by scientists like the Darwin Initiative team, they help to create a better understanding of life, the processes that drive it, and what is called the biogeography of an area. Biogeography seeks to understand life’s relationship with the earth’s geography and climate.

For intance, the new species of snake snake found on Mount Mabu suggests a link with the Congo Basin, some 870 miles away. Does that mean that at some distant point in the past the Congo forest stretched down to northern Mozambique? When did it recede? What climactic event drove it back to the north? Those are the questions these scientists are studying. Bio-geography is very important in light of the current climate change paradigm we live in, and the new species of Mout Mabu are new pieces of that puzzle.

There is another more pragmatic reason to get excited over the finds on Mount Mabu. The more species found to be unique to an area, the more chance there is that the rare forest will be protected. The forested valleys and ridges behind Mount Mabu are the largest stretch of remaining rainforest in southern Africa, and is in “pristine condition,” according to Bayliss.

This alone should warrant conservation, but not always. The discovery of so much diversity makes it all the more probable that Mount Mabu’s forest will not be logged or mined, but does not guarantee it.

When Julian Bayliss first came to climb Mount Mabu the forest was hidden behind the summit. It was only on his attempt to get to the top did he come over the eastern ridge and gasp at an unending forest as far as the eye can see. The team was shocked, and realized that they had stumbled upon something completely unique, something they hadn’t expected.

The story goes that Bayliss found the mountain on Google Earth. This is true to a point, but he explains that he had simply used the Google tool to locate all the mountains over a certain height in the area, and then he set out to climb each one. It was only by hiking up them, hacking through undergrowth, getting sweaty and bitten by spiders that he discovered the  forest. Then he used a satellite map, like Google Earth, to separate out the forest with infrared filters back in his office.

That the forest is almost untouched by human presence is clear. There are no chopped stumps, few paths, and the big forest giants like the mahogany trees are only falling because of occasional rot. The trees rise like the pillars of a cathedral, and the forest floor is dark, damp and covered in leaf litter.

The sheer number of new species found in the forest is staggering. To date there are four new butterflies, at least one new chameleon, three species of snake, a new species of crab, five new species of plants, and a host of potential new species, including a shrew, snails, a pseudo-scorpion, frogs, catfish, bats and insects. It’s clear that Mount Mabu’s secrets are only beginning to be revealed, and the researchers believe there is much more awaiting discovery.

Identifying new species is difficult. It can take years to confirm or deny the discovery, and the Dwarf Chameleons are a perfect example. Unlike Bill Branch’s new find, the chameleons may be closely related to a species on a nearby mountain. Are they different? They appear different, but Branch is here to find out, so he is collecting specimens and will do DNA testing. His feeling is that they may well be, but the discovery process is still unfolding.

The Darwin Initiative has presented their findings from Mount Mabu in Maputo, Mozambique's capital. Donor organizations including the British Kew Gardens, which oversaw the grant, and senior officials in the government of Mozambique heard the scientists outline potential protection for Mount Mabu and the other study sites. Government officials gave a commitment to protect the sites studied by the Darwin Initiative, including the Mabu forest. This is the first step in protecting the rare forests and the biodiversity that they foster.

Bayliss explains the importance of the meeting with the government officials and major donors. Sitting against the summit stone of Mout Mabu, looking out over the unending trees he explains. “We don’t want to finish our project with a series of technical reports about our findings in Mabu. We want to finish our project with strong conservation measures in place for each of our sites.”

More GlobalPost dispatches by Jeffrey Barbee:

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