Finding and saving unique ecosystems

Ecologist and Oxford Brookes PhD alumnus, Professor Julian Bayliss has literally scaled mountains in order to protect them and their unique wildlife. Here he talks about his discoveries, the vital importance of protecting the natural world and his concerns for the future.

“When I was seven, we moved from Cardiff up to North Wales. It was a rural area with not much for kids to do but the previous owner of our house had left behind a moth trap. We got it working – and my love of moths and butterflies grew from there.

“My parents bought me a butterfly book that had a picture of a man holding a butterfly net in a rainforest and it just looked so exciting and magical, like something I wanted to do.”

The skills I developed to do my PhD have been crucial to the work I’ve done since

Julian turned his love of nature into a career – studying BSc Zoology at Royal Holloway and MSc Conservation Biology at Manchester Metropolitan, as well as working on projects in East Africa before starting a PhD at Oxford Brookes in 1999.

“I was part of a team of researchers led by Professor Stewart Thompson using Geographic Information Systems to model biodiversity in Oxfordshire. The skills I developed to do my PhD have been crucial to the work I’ve done since – using a lot of the same techniques to identify areas of high biodiversity in Africa.

“The most satisfying part of my work has been securing protection for forests within Malawi and Mozambique that have shown to have high biodiversity but which had no formal protection.”

Finding new species is important from a scientific viewpoint

Julian has discovered many new species, especially butterflies – and has the unusual distinction of having two species named after him, but one of them with his name spelled wrong. But as with so many naturalists, he is not motivated by fame – and certainly not by money – but by nature itself.

“To know something is worth conserving, you have to know what is there in the first place. So finding new species is important from a scientific viewpoint. It is also something that appeals to my sense of adventure – and some of the trips I do come with real dangers. There’s nobody going to come and rescue me if I injure myself or get bitten by a snake!”

But with rates of deforestation increasing, finding new species can be a bitter-sweet achievement when their habitat is not given the protection it needs.

“Some of the forests where I’ve discovered species have since been cut down and turned into farmland. Those species may well now be extinct. They’d lived on this Earth for millions of years, but within a few years after being discovered, their habitat has been destroyed. The plants in those forests could’ve provided life-saving medicines, but now we’ll never know.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As well as new species, Julian has also discovered entire new forests – including the largest rainforest in southern Africa, on Mount Mabu, and the smallest, on Mount Lico. Both are in Mozambique. Using Google Earth and other high resolution satellite images, Julian pinpointed these hidden forests and led expeditions to explore them.

Possibly no human had ever set foot in that forest before

In the case of Mount Lico, the local communities did not know of anybody ever having reached the forest as it is so inaccessible. For the 2018 expedition to Mount Lico, which involved scaling a 100 metre high cliff, Julian and his team of scientists needed the help of freestyle climbers.

“Our safety was never in doubt – these guys are the best in the world and made sure everything was secure. It was physically hard work though. I’d never done anything like that before.

“But the first time I went up, I did it in 45 minutes. Nothing was going to slow me down!

“The feeling, when I was able to untie my climbing gear and step into that forest, is hard to describe. It was exhilarating, exciting, awe-inspiring but also there was a sense of calmness. Possibly no human had ever set foot in that forest before. It was completely untouched nature.”

The expedition – captured in a stunning short film, Lost Forest – led to the discovery of a number of new species of small mammals, fish, chameleons, butterflies, geckos and crabs, as well as fleeting glimpses of an unidentified type of antelope. It also gathered data to be used to measure the impact of climate change.

We can’t carry on destroying our planet

Mount Lico is one of a number of sites in the region, high in biodiversity and low in human environmental impact, that Julian is hoping will get protected status. But he is very worried about the future, not just for southern Africa but the whole world.

“The human population and our impact on nature keeps growing. But the Earth only has finite resources. Climate change is approaching a tipping point. I used to think it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime, although maybe in my daughter’s lifetime, but it could be as little as ten years away.

“If one good thing comes out of the Covid lockdown then it could be people realising we can’t carry on destroying our planet. People want to engage with nature, you can see that from the viewing figures for programmes like those produced by the BBC Natural History Unit. We just need to find a more sustainable and harmonious way to live as part of it.”

Julian is doing his bit to encourage the next generation – passing on his love of nature to his daughter Poppy and even naming a species of butterfly, cymothoe baylissi poppyana, after her. So while he had a second-hand moth trap and a picture in a book to inspire a life of ecology and exploration, Poppy has the ideal real-life role model.

Find out more about research into ecology, environment and conservation at Oxford Brookes >>

And if primates are your thing… find out about postgraduate qualifications in Primate Conservation >>

Read how Art alumna, Lois Muddiman has used her art to campaign on environmental issues >>