Deep within the heart of the African nation of Mozambique, there stands a mountain.
Unknown to scientists and mostly undisturbed by humans since, well, since perhaps the dawn of our species, this mysterious mountain, clothed in dense green virgin rainforest, rises up from a golden ocean of savannah.
In addition to the ecological isolation by the surrounding savannah, the mountain is isolated due to political events; the civil war that ravaged parts of Mozambique from 1977 to 1992 also helped preserve this area, untouched.

Mount Mabu stands approximately 1,700m (5,600ft) high and is home to what is believed to be the largest medium-altitude rainforest in southern Africa.

The locals knew of this mountain, of course, but scientists had no knowledge of it before 2005. This is when scientists at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens first set eyes upon it, thanks to Google Earth's satellite maps. Google Earth collects and curates global satellite images and makes them freely searchable by the public.

It all started when Julian Bayliss, a conservation biologist for Kew Gardens and a technical adviser for the Government of Malawi, was searching Google Earth maps for potential unknown biodiversity hotspots in Africa. He was specifically looking for areas that were at least 1,600m (5,400ft) above sea level where there was a lot of rainfall since those conditions meant the place would likely be forested. Mount Mabu fulfilled all these criteria and further, due to its ecological isolation, it looked quite promising. Additionally, Mozambique's long-running civil war, the lack of accessible roads in the area and limited knowledge of the forest's existence also served to protect this region.

Further research revealed that Mount Mabu was unmapped, unexplored, unlogged and totally unrepresented in the scientific collections or literature anywhere in the world. The electronic discovery of this lost world was brimming over with intriguing possibilities.

Dr Bayliss made a number of trips to scope out the region to see if it was as good as it looked on Google Earth maps. It was: he confirmed that Mount Mabu was predominantly unexplored forest.

Planning the first follow-up expedition then fell upon the capable shoulders of Kew Gardens botanist Jonathan Timberlake. He assembled and led an international team of 28 scientists on the first expedition to Mount Mabu in October and November 2008. The team consisted of scientists and support staff from the UK, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Belgium and Switzerland, and they relied upon 70 porters to help them with their work.

The biodiversity was breathtaking.

"The phenomenal diversity is just mind-boggling: seeing how things are adapted to little niches, to me this is the incredible thing. Even today we cannot say we know all of the world's key areas for biodiversity -- there are still new ones to discover", Mr Timberlake was quoted as saying in a Kew Gardens press release.

[...]

According to Mr Timberlake, there is still much to learn about our planet.

"We cannot say we have discovered all the biodiversity areas in the world", said Mr Timberlake in a press release.

In fact, none of Mount Mabu's natural wonders would have been documented if Dr Bayliss hadn't used Google Earth maps to first go exploring.

In view of this example, it's not difficult to imagine that using Google Earth maps may reveal additional pockets of biodiversity, especially in areas like Mozambique or, in my favourite part of the world, Papua New Guinea.

"People say there is nothing left to be discovered in this world", said Dr Bayliss. "But there are new species to be discovered. Lost worlds to be found."

"You're always asking questions. As soon as you think you have the answers ... new doors open", said Dr Bayliss.

"That's the beauty of life."

In this film, we catch a glimpse of how Dr Bayliss used Google Earth technology to explore Mount Mabu, and where this discovery led him:



More details on the expedition and photos can be found in the original article published by The Guardian.