Scientists In Africa Explored A Rainforest Hidden Inside A Colossal Volcano

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In the spring of 2018, a group of 28 people are on a mission in the north of Mozambique. Traipsing up the 3,600-foot-high Mount Lico, these people are following team-leader Dr. Julian Bayliss’ own ideas about what lay at the top. And when they eventually reach the top of the mountain, the team members are astonished by what they find.

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The expedition hadn’t exactly been a walk in the park. In fact, even the build-up to the excursion had apparently been somewhat arduous. Bayliss had decided to assemble a team of explorers for the undertaking – but actually doing so took around two years. Eventually, though, he managed to pull together a team, each with their own specialities.

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Bayliss’ venture eventually started to take shape. Indeed, the scientist had crafted an alliance between a number of institutions spread out across three of the Earth’s continents. He then had to contend with the small matter of actually getting his team to scale the mountain. And given that the landform seemed to be ill suited to human exploration, organizing an expedition must surely have been a daunting prospect.

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At the top of Mount Lico lies a crater, formed as a result of volcanic activity. This is where Bayliss and his team planned to go for their trip in 2018. Yet there was a problem facing the group. A tall rock embankment of around 2,230 foot encircles this crater. Indeed, this represented a huge obstacle for the experts to overcome.

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So Bayliss got in touch with a pair of rock climbers, thought by some to be two of Britain’s best. This pair gave lessons to rest of the expedition team, helping them to learn how to scale dangerous heights. It was necessary to have top climbers on board for this mission, especially given that the team thought that they’d be the first people to climb the mysterious Mount Lico. But when they eventually did so, they realized that perhaps they weren’t the pioneers that they had expected to be.

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It should go without saying that Earth is home to countless breathtaking natural wonders. But given how much mankind has explored the planet, it might seem an unlikely prospect to come across new discoveries today. Previously unknown locations and landforms are nonetheless recorded regularly. Helping that along is modern technology, which uncovers some of these wonders.

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Google Earth, for one thing, is a tool that has been central to a number of amazing discoveries. Essentially a program that uses satellite images to provide users with a vivid depiction of the planet, Google Earth has also led people to record new and unexplored locations. Some of these finds have ultimately proven to be significant.

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One example of a Google Earth discovery lies in Argentina, at the delta of the Paraná River in the northeast of the country. In 2016 a filmmaker by the name of Sergio Neuspiller was examining the area through the Google program, looking for places to shoot. It was during the course of this research that he noted something unusual.

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Neuspiller had stumbled upon a round island, which itself was trapped in the middle of a round body of water. Given the odd and perfectly circular outline of this piece of land, the island picked up the nickname “El Ojo.” These Spanish words translate into the English language as “The Eye.”

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Neuspiller made a video in which he describes the island in greater detail. “The Eye is a circle of land 118 meters (387 feet) in diameter, surrounded by a thin water channel,” he says in the clip. “The two circles – formed by the water and the earth – are so perfect that it is hard to believe that the island is a natural phenomenon.”

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Taking advantage of Google Earth, the filmmaker realized that the round island was also exhibiting other strange characteristics. To put it simply, it was moving around. “By using the time control function on Google Earth,” Neuspiller told Science Post in 2018, “we discovered that the inner land disc is moving and turning on its own axis.”

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The true nature of this piece of land and the reasons for its unusual form and behavior remain a mystery. Since his discovery of the island through Google Earth, Neuspiller and some specialists have since visited the site. And he ultimately hopes to raise money to one day return in search of more solid answers.

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Other Google Earth explorations over the years have drawn attention to finds of a more otherworldly nature. Back in 2008, for instance, Vincenzo de Michele was having a look at the images provided by the program. Focusing his attention upon a location somewhere in Egypt, he found himself examining something particularly unusual.

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Peering at the image on his screen, de Michele could discern a crater measuring just under 150 feet in diameter. And it turned out that this was actually where a meteorite had smashed into the planet from space. Reportedly, fewer than 180 such sites have ever been recorded – meaning that de Michele’s find was an important one.

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Dr. Julian Bayliss was also a man who understood the potential insights that might be extracted from Google Earth. In fact, over the course of some 15 years, the conservationist had been using the program so that he could look at the upper reaches of the African continent. While doing that, he had even managed to record some groundbreaking observations.

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In 2012 Bayliss was looking at Google Earth when he noticed something on top of a mountain in Mozambique. The landform in question was Mount Lico, which can technically be referred to as an inselberg or a monadnock. These two terms simply relate to lone rock hills, ridges or mountains that jut sharply into the sky from an otherwise flat landscape.

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Mount Lico reaches a height of around 3,600 feet, and it has a volcanic crater on its top. Access to this crater, however, is closed off by a huge sheet of rock, which measures as high as 2,300 feet. Essentially, the crater is cut off from the outside world – meaning that human beings would generally find it difficult to enter.

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But imagery provided by Google Earth has meant that knowledge of this crater is more easily accessible nowadays. When Bayliss was scanning the area, he was given a bird’s-eye view of what was inside. And what this appeared to be, in fact, was a forest that had hitherto gone unrecorded.

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This was not the first time that Bayliss had made such a discovery using Google Earth. In 2005, in fact, he had noted another mountain bearing a forest within the vicinity of Mount Lico. This was Mount Mabu, which stands at around 5,600 feet high. Given the nature of the finding, the woodlands here have come to be known as Google Forest.

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People living in the area had, of course, already known about Mount Mabu’s existence. Yet the forest it held was obscured – as were the variety of plants and animals that lived there. But now, as a result of its discovery, scientists have since noted a number of previously unrecorded species.

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In terms of new animals, experts have taken note of a snake known as Atheris mabuensis, as well as a type of bat called Rhinolophus mabuensis. A small chameleon referred to as Nadzikambia baylissi has also been discovered there. And with regard to plants, a type of mistletoe called Helixanthera schizocalyx lives in the forest.

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Researchers have also recorded another five species of plant for the first time in the forest of Mount Mabu. And that’s not to mention a couple of other snake species and a number of new sorts of butterfly too. On top of that, it’s believed that quite a few more new plants and animals may well be found there.

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With these woodlands on Mabu now known about, efforts were taken to secure their protection from being cut down. So in the summer of 2009, the leaders of Mozambique declared that they would impose regulations to ensure the area’s conservation. And this, naturally enough, was an outcome that the forest’s discoverer welcomed.

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According to a June 2009 article in The Guardian, Bayliss had hoped that his find would help with conservation. “As scientists it is incredibly exciting to go into a previously unexplored area and discover new species of butterfly, snake and chameleon,” he said. “But our aim was always to secure pledges of conservation towards the protection of these sites.”

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Despite its successes, Bayliss’ discovery of Mount Mabu in no way satisfied his hunger for exploration. So by 2012 he was at it again, this time noting Mount Lico and its green crater. It wasn’t until 2017, though, that he could be fully sure that this hollow actually sheltered a woodland.

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That was the year that Bayliss could finally send a drone into the skies above Mount Lico. But even this proved difficult, given that the area in which the mountain is located isn’t well suited to this kind of exploration. After a couple of attempts, though, Bayliss managed to fly his drone over the tall walls of the crater, providing him with a look inside.

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With the drone sending images back to Bayliss’ phone, the scientist could now confirm that a forest really did sit there. This knowledge secured, he could begin to prepare for a real-life expedition to the site. By May 2018 Bayliss and 27 others had set themselves up in the area.

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A pair of distinguished British rock climbers, Jules Lines and Mike Robertson, formed part of the team. These two roped the crater walls to allow the other members of the expedition to scale the rock. They also gave the team lessons in how to actually do so, with Robertson later noting how difficult this could be. “Learning to ascend a 125-meter [410-foot] cliff in the jungle is a lot to ask of people,” he told The Guardian.

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Also on the team were a few scientists from Mozambique who were charged with taking note of the animals and plants they encountered. Furthermore, a cook, a doctor, a logistics specialist and a whole host of other scientists made the trek. For all these people, it seems, making it to the top of Mount Lico was a breath-taking experience.

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A number of the team members spoke to The Verge after their journey. One of them, Jeff Barbee, recalled the moment that he had reached the peak. “I was surrounded by butterflies, so many different kinds – some close, some small, some big, some… just so many butterflies,” he said. “I just stood there surrounded by them, panting and realizing that I was getting into something very special. It had that feeling to it.”

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Mike Brewin’s experience, meanwhile, was tinged with a little melancholy. “You’re looking out across the local area for miles and miles, and you see the extent of human interaction with the environment, the amount of deforestation that has gone on,” he said. “And you know that 50, 60, 70 years ago, it would have just been pristine… woodland. There’s sadness as well that you feel because you know it’s changed.”

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Yet given the tall protective sheet of rock that encircles the forest, the area has been generally left to its own devices. As a result, the wildlife found there can be thought of as being unique. In fact, it may be that scientists document a number of new species from the place.

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On top of being an expert on conservation, Bayliss also concerns himself with the study of butterflies. And while he was in the forest of Lico, he managed to happen upon a new type. “I got a new species of butterfly from Lico, which is lovely,” as he put it to The Verge.

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As well as the abundance of wildlife located at the top of Mount Lico, the expedition also noted something else. Indeed, along the course of a stream that cut through the forest, they found a number of objects. But unlike the plants and animals that the team had observed, these things were by no means natural.

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Before the expedition, people had generally thought that human beings had never reached the forest of Mount Lico. After all, that sheet of rock jutting high into the sky protected the place. However, when they arrived, the explorers ended up stumbling across some very old manmade pots.

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Intrigued by the pots, the team interviewed some inhabitants of the area when they returned from their journey. Many claimed that nobody had ever climbed Mount Lico before – but a number of older folk had their own suggestions. According to them, German colonizers in the midst of the First World War had come to the area. Perhaps these Germans had made it to the top of the mountain? Or maybe they drove the area’s inhabitants to do so?

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Expedition member Jonathon Timberlake has another theory entirely. “My suggestion would be that [the pots were used for] a ceremonial purpose, that somebody had been up [the mountain], possibly to do with rain, a rain type of ceremony,” he told The Verge. “If you’ve got a dry year in the surrounding area, you’re liable to have severe problems of hunger. So appealing for rain is a very important function, and mountains are often associated, quite rightly, with rain.”

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Having spoken to some locals himself, team leader Bayliss heard another theory. “They talked of a tribe of little people who used to live on the top,” he recalled. “And when they used to go to the base of the mountain, the little people used to throw snakes down on top of them.”

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All in all, the forest upon Mount Lico continues to hold many secrets. In fact, it’s possible that analysis of the limited data obtained by this expedition might not be completed for years to come. But in any case, it’s undoubtedly an important site – and it left an imprint upon those who experienced it.

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The lack of human interference on Mount Lico stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of the world. And this was something which evidently struck Julian Bayliss. “It’s probably the greatest environmental crime of humanity right now, this destruction of remaining rainforests,” he told The Verge. “What happens in Malaysia or the Amazon or the Congo will also affect the quality of air that you breathe in New York or London or Wales. It’s very shortsighted that we’re clearing all of this rainforest so quickly.”

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