So far, researchers have identified 96 endemic species of vertebrates in the Eastern Arc Mountains, including sunbirds, chameleons and the wide-eyed primates called bushbabies.
Many insects are also endemic to the Eastern Arc, including 43 species of butterflies. Some of the most popular houseplants in the world come from its forests, including African violets, and the mountains are home to at least 800 other endemic species of plants.
All of these species are crammed into 13 patches of forest that, put together, would be barely bigger than Rhode Island. Only a few places on earth, including New Zealand and Madagascar, have comparable densities of endangered endemic species.
When I was at the Field Museum, one of the mammalogists made regular collecting trips to the Eastern Arc Mountains, returning each time with new discoveries. Those specimens would go into jars next to the collections from hotspots in the Philippines and Madagascar, where they would sit until there was time to describe the new species. Each trip, those scientists would know pretty much how many new species they would find on the next unexplored mountain. And they would know there wouldn’t be time to describe all those new species before development started encroaching on those habitats.
There is an urgent need not just for more systematists with the training to describe these species and to understand how they relate to one another, but for more museums where they can work and train yet more biologists to understand the whole organism, its ecology, its evolutionary connections, and its behaviors.
A while back, the Invasive Species Weblog pointed out the risks that the lack of new systematists can pose not just to science, but to security and to agriculture. The skills needed to identify the new species in hotspots of Africa are the skills needed to identify disease vectors in a hot zone in Africa, or a midge attacking wheat in Montana.