Since Google Earth hit the Web in 2005, besides instantly turning all office desk globes into decorative accessories, it has opened the world up to global exploration at the click of a mouse.
But it's not just a neat toy; some extraordinary things have been discovered with its one-click access to satellite imagery. Things like ...
6The Real-World Land of the Lost
From the non-PVP-enabled safety of their computers, British researchers were using Google Earth to look around Africa when they noticed a patch of forest on and around Mozambique's Mount Mabu that they didn't know was there. They soon realized they were looking at the largest rain forest in Southern Africa, and one that had previously been completely unknown to science.
It turns out that mountainous terrain and civil war had protected the region from the notoriously machine gun and mountain climbing averse scientific community. Meanwhile, its location in the center of an ocean of African savanna meant it was ecologically protected as well -- whatever species were living there had spent years evolving in complete isolation from any known jungle creatures. The scientists quickly booked a trip to check it out in person.
If movies have taught us anything, they're all about to be murdered by gorillas.
When they finally set foot on the hidden-in-plain-sight mountain forest in 2008, what they found was practically a bio-dome paradise for biologists and botanists alike.
That may not look like much to you, but all the mistletoe botanists out there just soiled themselves.
The result has been a treasure trove of new species -- the 27 square miles of lush forest have revealed pygmy chameleons, Swynnerton's robin, four new species of butterfly, pseudo-scorpions, crabs, monkeys, antelopes, rare orchids, giant snakes like the gaboon viper and a previously unknown type of adder, as well as entire colonies of rare birds. The list goes on like a yacht party with Noah.
Having evolved effectively in isolation, more new species are being discovered there to this day. In fact, it's getting to the point that whatever they pick up is new to science. Jonathan Timberlake, the original expedition leader, said of the discovery, "The phenomenal diversity is just mind-boggling."
Kew Gardens Images
"It only took us like a week to put a road through it."
Apparently the locals had kept their mouths shut about the pristine forest because they liked to hide there when things got too intense during their two-decade-long civil war that killed an estimated one million people. Yeah, that makes sense. We wouldn't have mentioned our very own Jurassic Park safe zone either.
We're certain this little guy is just waiting to spit poison tar in the cameraman's face.
5Ancient Mammal Fossils
At a stonecutting yard in Italy, masons were cutting slices from a large chunk of Egyptian limestone (likely with a giant deli meat slicer) when they happened to notice they were apparently taking cross sections of a massive skeleton.
Recognized by a local expert as a whale that lived in Egypt 40 million years ago, word of the discovery eventually reached the desk of University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich, an authority on ancient whales. This was a major find, but where he needed to be was the spot where the fossil actually originated, in Egypt. The problem was no one at the Italian stonecutting shop had any idea where the slab of rock had come from, and tracing its origins was pretty much impossible. Gingerich's only clues were that it had passed through the Egyptian city of Sheikh Fadl and the vague assertion of a colleague in Egypt that the quarry was, we paraphrase, "Probably somewhere clear the hell farther East than that ...".
To Google Earth! Yes, with next to nothing to go on, Gingerich made like a modern day Indiana Jones and ... well, sat his ass down.
University of Michigan
Secretary's ass is just one danger of modern excavation.
Using Google Earth, he scanned eastward of Sheikh Fadl until he found a range of limestone bluffs just begging to be turned into countertops. From the comfort of his office chair, he followed them east, looking for the sorts of roads that would be required to transport giant chunks of rock via truck. About 75 miles east of the city, he followed one such road to what looked like it might be a quarry. After hitting zoom and squinting at the screen for a few hours, he had friends in Egypt confirm that the road did in fact end at a limestone quarry. At this point, he finally hopped a plane, which we're sure involved a map and a line being drawn from Michigan to Egypt to a score by John Williams.
University of Michigan
It's like if someone replaced all the car chases in Indiana Jones with staring at computer screens.
Upon arriving, Gingerich realized that ancient-whale watching probably wasn't going to happen. However, he did notice bands of red in the white limestone walls of the quarry, which he could tell were signs of loose soil blown into ancient caves. And he knew that ancient caves were ancient animals' favorite places to get trapped and preserved forever as the freeloading real estate squatters they were. After a quick look around, he realized this quarry was full of more tiny bones than a garbage bin outside Hooters.
Skeletons looked more like water damage back then.
The bones were the remains of small mammals that lived in the early Miocene Epoch, some 18 to 20 million years ago -- the first small mammal fossils that ancient to be found in Egypt. Even better, not only may they represent some of the first mammals to migrate from Asia to Africa when the land bridge between them first formed, but they may also even be the ancestors of the giraffes and elephants and everything else you'd see in a Disney movie underneath a baby lion being held over a cliff.
"Maybe Asia wasn't so bad."
If it weren't for Google Earth, they would be holding up bowls of pasta from inside of countertops across Italy right now.