Hundreds of new and unique species found on Africa’s ‘Sky Islands’

A treasure trove of unique biodiversity has been discovered along the stretch of mountains running from northern Mozambique to Mount Mulanje in Malawi in southeast Africa. Unfortunately, the area suffers from one of the highest deforestation rates in Africa, leaving this rich array of beautiful wildlife with an uncertain future.

The abundance of life was recently documented by an international team of scientists in the Montane Archipelago (SEAMA) in South-East Africa. An ‘archipelago’ usually refers to a cluster of islands, but this name has a very different meaning.

High in the mountains, there are about thirty fragmented areas of grasslands and evergreen forests that have remained relatively cut off from each other. These isolated ‘sky islands’ provide the perfect setting for hosting unique collections of wildlife.

An international team of scientists has been meticulously researching this exceptional region for decades and recently bundled their work in a new study.

A newly discovered freshwater crab from Mount Namuli

A newly discovered freshwater crab from Mount Namuli.

Image courtesy of Julian Bayliss

According to their findings, the region is home to more than 200 species found nowhere else on Earth, including 90 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, butterflies and freshwater crabs, plus 127 plant species.

Among the strictly endemic species – meaning they are unique to the area – were three species of birds, six freshwater crabs, four mammals, 11 amphibians, 22 reptiles and 39 butterflies. Some of these species have never before been identified by scientists and may be considered new species.

Based on these discoveries, the team believes that this unique area should be recognized as a new ecoregion to receive the protection it deserves.

“Ecological regions (ecoregions) are widely used to inform global conservation priorities. They define large expanses of land or water, characterized by geographically distinct assemblages of animals and plants. New definitions of ecoregions are rare and typically follow many years of research across a range of scientific disciplines,” said Professor Julian Bayliss, lead author of the study at Oxford Brookes University and the National Network for Community Management of Natural Resources in Mozambique, in a statement.

An endemic bird species that lives in the Montane Archipelago in Southeast Africa

An endemic bird species that lives in the Montane Archipelago in Southeast Africa.

Image courtesy of Julian Bayliss

“It took decades of international cooperation to gather enough evidence to define the ecoregion. We documented hundreds of previously undescribed species and examined the geology, climate and genetic history of the ecosystems to summarize what makes these mountains so unique. This new ecoregion will create an important platform from which regional conservation initiatives can be developed,” Bayliss explains.

The SEAMA owes its unique biodiversity to the abundance of mountains that were formed hundreds of millions of years ago. In addition to being home to vast mountainous grasslands, the region has the largest and smallest mid-altitude rainforests in southern Africa: Mount Mabu and Mount Lico respectively.

the head of a forest viper snake found on Mount Mabu, Africa.

A forest viper found on Mount Mabu.

Image courtesy of William Roy Branch

“The ecoregion is fragmented across small isolated patches of rainforest, montane grasslands and shrublands, each with their own unique but distantly related plants and animals. There is so much more to discover, but many of these species could become extinct before we can record them,” explains Dr. Harith Farooq, a biologist at the University of Lúrio in Mozambique and co-author of the study.

However, it is a region that is facing enormous changes. Since 2000, SEAMA has lost an average of 18 percent of its moist forest cover – and that figure could be as high as 43 percent in certain parts of the region.

Most of the region’s small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians depend on the rich forest, underscoring the urgent need for better conservation efforts in the area.

The Mabu leaf-nosed bat.

The Mabu leaf-nosed bat.

Image courtesy of Ara Monadjem

“Our study highlights the need to protect this unique, rather understudied, ecoregion,” said Dr Gabriela Bittencourt, co-author and postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in London. “Encouraging the conservation of the Montane Archipelago in Southeast Africa is of paramount importance because it is clear that we have only just begun to explore what we can learn about this diverse region and consider how these lessons can be applied to global biodiversity conservation efforts.”

The new study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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