Uncharted territory: Scientists discover new and incredible species

Jul 06, 2013
Uncharted territory: Scientists discover new and incredible species

It’s every scientist’s dream to travel to a remote, unexplored place looking for as many new and interesting species as they can find. This was a dream come true for the 15 Mozambican and international scientists, led by Piotr Naskrecki, who spent three weeks in the Cheringoma Plateau of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

There couldn’t have been a more adventurous setting for this expedition than the sheer limestone cliffs, studded with deep caves, cascading down to the lush riverine forest and rushing streams of the gorges below. The scientists’ mission was to collect and record information on the species of this region to help park managers understand and protect Gorongosa’s biodiversity.

Gorongosa National Park is a 4,067 square kilometer reserve located at the southern end of the great East Africa Rift Valley. It supports a tremendous level of species diversity and is also perhaps Africa’s greatest wildlife-restoration story. In 2004, after the end of a decades long civil war (in which there was periodic fighting inside the park) the Government of Mozambique and the US-based Carr Foundation agreed to work together to rebuild the Park’s infrastructure, restore its wildlife populations and spur local economic development. Between 2004 and 2007 the Carr Foundation invested more than $10 million in this effort.

During that time the restoration project team completed a 6,200-hectare fenced wildlife sanctuary within the larger park and reintroduced buffaloes and wildebeests to the ecosystem. Due to the success of this initial three-year project, the Government of Mozambique and the Carr Foundation (whose official name is now “Gorongosa Restoration Project”) announced in 2008 that they had signed a 20-year agreement to restore and co-manage the Park.

In total, the team recorded over 1,200 species (and counting) including 182 bird species, 54 mammal species, 47 reptile species, 33 frog species, over 100 ant species, and 320 plant species. Some of the notable finds on the survey were the “Chewbacca Bat”, named after the Star Wars character; a strange, cave-dwelling frog that is possibly new to science; an ant that is incapable of walking on flat surfaces; a bombardier beetle that defends itself by producing small explosions from its abdomen; and several katydids that are new to science.

The scientists used a variety of methods on the survey including pitfall traps, mist nets, pheromone traps, remote cameras, and ultrasonic sound detectors. They explored uncharted territory in Gorongosa, descending into caves in deep limestone gorges, and ascending the tall canopies of trees using advanced tree climbing and repelling techniques.

This was the first comprehensive biodiversity survey in the history of this 4,000sqkm protected area, and its results will help guide the restoration effort to reverse biodiversity losses suffered by the park during the armed conflicts that devastated Mozambique from 1975 until 1992. By understanding what species exist in Gorongosa, park management can make better decisions about how to protect the park’s biodiversity and its rare and threatened species.

The Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory, in honour of E.O. Wilson’s support, is a modern science laboratory scheduled to open in Gorongosa soon. Specimens collected during the survey will form the foundation of a biological research collection that will be housed in the lab. And information collected by the survey’s scientists will contribute to the park’s biodiversity database, a tool that helps manage and protect its natural resources.

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