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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

August 2, 2013

The Race: GG VII Potpourri and the World’s Largest Reptile

Much has happened since my last post from the islands a couple of months ago which accounts for the tardiness of this one. However, Rayna Bell, our Cornell PhD candidate did manage to post two videos via National Geographic while we were on the islands.

I was invited to speak in TEDxSão Tomé, a great honor, and so returned in mid-June.  Readers should know that there is but one TAP flight to the islands per week via Lisbon so this is no small undertaking especially for a single lecture.  TEDx was a wonderful experience, and I was able to meet with some the brightest young people from the islands and to “spread the biodiversity word” internationally as well.

tedx poster

me at tedx

In the meantime, back at the Academy, we have been assessing the results of our fieldwork on GG VII; below is an image of the 2013 team, along with some of our best local friends.

Team 7

The tall Sao Tomean in the back row, and the woman on the far right are Quintino Quade and Roberta dos Santos, respectively; the gentleman in the wheelchair is Ned Seligman. All three work for an NGO called STeP UP which has interacted closely with our CAS teams since the very beginning, especially with our biodiversity education efforts.

saotome_poster small

The on-going project was recently presented and summarized at international meetings in New Orleans by Dr. Tom Daniel, our senior botanist. Courtesy Charlotte Pfeiffer, CAS.

 

Shortly after returning, I learned from two colleagues here at CAS, entomologists Dr. Paco Hita Garcia and Georg Fischer, that they had described a new ant species from Sao Tome back in 2010, but somehow forgotten to tell me! The members of GG I collected these along the trail from Bom Successo and Lagoa Amelia  over 12 years ago!

Tetramorium renae

Tetramorium renae, Photo by CAS Project Lab.

Miko Nadel, our lichenologist, has narrowed the focus of his MA dissertation to the fruticose lichens of the genus Usnea which are found at higher elevations on the islands. He ascended Pico Príncipe, and readers will recall that he was part of the team that ascended Pico do São Tomé during GG VI.  He now has over 600 collections upon which to base the first survey of this group in the islands.

Usnea  NM phot

Usnea sp. M.Nadel phot. GG VII, Principe Id.

Miko’s major advisor at San Francisco State University is Dr. Dennis Desjardin, a world authority on mushrooms and veteran of GG II and III. The blog of a year ago (April: Mountains that Glow) featured Miko’s discovery of tiny glowing mushrooms on Pico Sao Tome and later, glowing mycelium (threadlike plant body of fungi) covering steep hillsides at around 1100 meters. This year our photographer, Andrew Stanbridge, returned to Macambrara, the second locality, and discovered larger whole mushrooms that glow, not just the vegetative bodies. The two images below are of the same unidentified mushrooms in daylight and at night.

3X6A4358 AS

 

3X6A4368as

A. Stanbridge phot. GG VII, Macambrara, Sao Tome.

Rayna Bell reports from Cornell: we have very strong evidence now that the two species [São Tomé giant treefrog and Oceanic treefrog] are hybridizing [on São Tomé] (individuals of intermediate size/color and lots of molecular data to back that up), and now the question is whether they have always exchanged migrants and still diverged in body size, coloration, and breeding site (divergence with geneflow) or if they were isolated in the past and have recently come back in to contact (allopatric speciation). Just as exciting is that Rayna has discovered that the Oceanic tree frog, Hyperolius molleri (right below), that has long been thought to occur on both islands, does not; i.e., although very similar to each other morphologically, the two island populations are very different genetically, contradicting earlier molecular work by one of my interns years ago! Rayna and one of her undergraduate students just published their GG VI findings of chytrid fungus on the Sao Tome Cobra bobo; this is only the second published incidence of the fungus on a caecilian species.

 

Rayna 2

Rayna Bell (r), Hyperolius molleri (l). phots by A. Stanbridge, GG VII

Dr. Tamas Szuts, our Hungarian spider expert, was able to make great collections of salticids (jumping spiders) and orb weavers (Araneidae). Tamas was particularly excited about his collections of the genus Pochyta (below), a problematic group within the family.

Pochyta

Pochyta sp. Phot. T. Szuts, GG VII

Many of Tamas’s specimens are still being identified, but he writes: I also made some interesting observations about their [Pochyta] life history: a specimen had camped on a leaf just above a Phallus muchroom which attracted some small flies. [The] specimen was observed to jump several times toward the flying or landing targets, and then climbing back onto the leaf with the aid of its dragline.
Tamas took the remarkable photos below.

salti 1a

 

salti 2b

T. Szuts photos. GG VII

Finally, since we returned in May I have received several remarkable photographs of leatherback sea turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, one of four species that nest on the beaches of São Tomé and Príncipe. In terms of mass, this is the largest reptile in the world. The largest female on record was 915 kg (just under 1 ton, and close to 3 meters long (9.8 feet)!

leatherback  Sao Tome 1998
Massive female Leatherback; unknown photographer, East coast of Sao Tome, 1998, courtesy of Liv Larsson

Praia Inhame 2

Praia Inhame, São Tomé 2013; unknown photographer

Praia Inhame

 Same turtle, Praia Inhame, São Tomé 2013; unknown photographer

There is much, much more which I will report in late September. Until then, here’s the parting shot:

P from Jockey's Bonnet

Southeast view of Príncipe Island from the Jockey’s Bonnet.  A. Stanbridge GG VII

PARTNERS:
We are most grateful to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for their continuing authorization to collect and export specimens for study, and to Ned Seligman, Roberta dos Santos and Quintino Quade of STePUP of Sao Tomehttp://www.stepup.st/, our “home away from home”. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences for largely funding our initial two expeditions (GG I, II). The Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden provided logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), and special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-V expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Sheila Farr Nielsen; GG VI supporters include Bom Bom Island and the Omali Lodge for logistics and lodging, The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abel, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke. GG VII has been funded by a very generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Mrs. W.H.V.“D.A.” Brooke, Thomas B. Livermore, Rod C. M. Hall, Timothy M. Muller, Prof. and Mrs. Evan C. Evans, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Clarence G. Donahue, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, and a heartening number of “Coolies”, “Blackhawk Gang” returnees and members of the Academy Docent Council. Once again we are deeply grateful for the continued support of the Omali Lodge (São Tomé) and Bom Bom Island (Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging and especially for sponsoring part our education efforts for GG VII.
Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”


May 24, 2013

The Race: Principe Island– A New World Biosphere Reserve!

During GG VII, just completed, a rather remarkable thing happened which readers should know about. I will write a wrap-up of Gulf of Guinea VII next month, but in the meantime I want to talk about Príncipe Island in general and what has just happened there.

P eddie Herbst

Photo by Eddie Herbst.

Readers will already know that this blog is about our 13 years of biodiversity work in the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe. The latter island is about twice as old as the former, at 31 million years. It is much, much smaller, but when it first arose volcanically from the ocean floor it was nearly four times the current combined area of both islands today.

Latest working GofG
RCD construct, Google Earth.

Príncipe’s great age is responsible for its remarkable appearance, a landscape punctuated by ancient steep volcanic plugs and a mesa, mostly made up of a rather rare rock known as phonolite.

Princiep andrew GG VI

 Andrew Stanbridge phot.  GG VI

Isolated for so many millions of years, it also harbors a large number of unique plants and animals we call endemics; organisms that have arrived on the islands by random dispersal, established colonizing populations that have accumulated genetic change over deep time, so that they are no longer the same as their ancestors on the mainland.  An endemic species is one that is found only in one place, nowhere else.

P endemics

Principe endemics. D. Lin, Weckerphoto]

All of the species above are unique to Príncipe Island and nowhere else in the world.  There are many more not pictured, but fewer than on São Tomé because that island is much larger, thus more niches. Virtually every one of our expeditions has turned up new, undescribed species from both islands as they remain incompletely known. Our work on these islands has been ongoing for 13 years and has included over 40 scientists of different disciplines and their graduate students.
A year or so, I was contacted by scientists from Madeira to provide information in support of an application to have Príncipe Island established as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
UNESCO defines World Biosphere Reserves thus:
Biosphere reserves are sites established by countries and recognized under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme to promote sustainable development based on local community efforts and sound science. As places that seek to reconcile conservation of biological and cultural diversity and economic and social development through partnerships between people and nature, they are ideal to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainable development from local to international scales.
Biosphere reserves are thus globally considered as:
•    sites of excellence where new and optimal practices to manage nature and human activities are tested and demonstrated;
•    tools to help countries implement the results of the World Summit on Sustainable Development and, in particular, the Convention on Biological Diversity and its Ecosystem Approach;
•    learning sites for the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development.
I was delighted to supply supportive lists of floral and faunal species and photographs to illustrate the uniqueness of Príncipe, as this would be a wonderful opportunity  for this tiny island with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.  Although I never received a copy of the completed application, I learned some months ago that the application had been successful, and that Príncipe Island had indeed become a new World Biosphere Reserve!!
What I did not anticipate was that I and my team would be on the island at the same time as the formal presentation. We were invited to the ceremony,  Saturday the 4th of May, by Regional President Jose Cardosa Cassandra himself during our annual meeting, and at the same time he asked if I would serve on his
Scientific Advisory Council, a great honor and responsibility.

IMG_3090

President Cassandra receives the World Biosphere Reserve document from Prime Minister Gabriel Costa. V. Schnoll phot

 

Toze

Photo by E. Mathilde

IMG_3098

Later, during his speech, President Cassandra acknowledged both me and the California Academy of Sciences by name, as having provided much of the biological ground work for the successful application.  He asked that I stand and be recognized… it was a unique moment, and even more so when the Prime Minister did the same in the next speech! V. Schnoll phot

IMG_3119
After the formal presentation which included around 250 people, there was a series of panel discussions, in which we took part. The rather odd configuration of Velma Schnoll’s photo above is because President Cassandra insisted that Roberta Ayres (our senior educator on the CAS team) translate for me. Roberta is short, I am tall.

 

IMG_3121
Finally Velma took a group picture. This includes the REDBIOS committee that originally submitted the Biosphere application; on the left is our old friend Arlindo Carvalho, Director General of the Environment He authorizes our research on the islands. Just to the left of the certificate is Regional President Jose Cassandra, and please note that he has put one of our CAS expedition patches on his shirt! To the right of the certificate is the UNESCO representative, and to my right is Dr. Antonio Abreu, whose people first contacted us for the biological information for the application.

IMG_3104
Phot. V Schnoll, GG VII

To say that this was a great and joyful day would be an understatement.  We know that our science is importance, and we can see that our Biodiversity Education project is making a difference tremendous with the kids.  But to have contributed to an event of global magnitude for this wonderful island country makes me and I am sure all who have joined me on these many Gulf of Guinea Expeditions very proud.

The next blog will be a summary of what we think we accomplished on GG VII.
The Parting Shot is a teaser:

The Parting shot:

 

Tom

Dr. Tom Daniel with what we think is Principe’s only endemic plant genus, hitherto known only from one specimen.
PARTNERS:
We are most grateful to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for their continuing authorization to collect and export specimens for study, and to Ned Seligman, Roberta dos Santos and Quintino Quade of STePUP of Sao Tomehttp://www.stepup.st/, our “home away from home”. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences for largely funding our initial two expeditions (GG I, II). The Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden provided logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), and special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-V expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Sheila Farr Nielsen; GG VI supporters include Bom Bom Island and the Omali Lodge for logistics and lodging, The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abel, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke. GG VII has been funded by a very generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Mrs. W.H.V.“D.A.” Brooke, Thomas B. Livermore, Rod C. M. Hall, Timothy M. Muller, Prof. and Mrs. Evan C. Evans, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Clarence G. Donahue, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, and a heartening number of “Coolies”, “Blackhawk Gang” returnees and members of the Academy Docent Council. Once again we are deeply grateful for the continued support of the Omali Lodge (São Tomé) and Bom Bom Island (Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging and especially for sponsoring part our education efforts for GG VII.
Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”


May 3, 2013

The Race: GG VII—We Reunite and Part Again

After two hectic weeks of education activities on São Tomé, Rayna Bell (Cornell University) arrived and the four of us joined the botanists, Tom Daniel, Jim Shevock, Miko Nadel, Tamas Szuts (our spider guy) and Andrew Stanbridge (our photographer) on Príncipe.   I  have asked Andrew, a veteran of three Gulf of Guinea expeditions, to illustrate some of what transpired while the group was divided.

blog-1

Our botany team, day one on Principe: Jim Shevock, Tom Daniel and Miko Nadel.

blog-2

Botany team en route to climb the mesa. Back left in the yellow hat is our guide Baloo.

blog-3

Jim on the “trail” to the mesa.

blog-4

Male Leptopelis palmatus found on the trail to the mesa. The females are the largest tree frogs in Africa.

blog-5

Tom discovers Principina, a unique sedge.

 blog

Miko on top of the mesa

blog-6

Jim and Tom collecting specimens along the route to Roça Sundy.

blog-7

First Academy visit to the offshore island “Jockey’s Bonnet”.

blog-8

Bonnet seedeater, unique to the small island of “Jockey’s Bonnet”.

blog-9

Tom carrying specimens upriver.

blog-11

Tamas and “Bobby” Bronkhurst pooting spiders on Jockey’s Bonnet.

 

Here is the parting shot.

parting

 

All images by Andrew Stanbridge

PARTNERS:

We are most grateful to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for their continuing authorization to collect and export specimens for study, and to Ned Seligman, Roberta dos Santos and Quintino Quade of STePUP of Sao Tomehttp://www.stepup.st/, our “home away from home”. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences for largely funding our initial two expeditions (GG I, II). The Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden provided logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), and special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-V expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Sheila Farr Nielsen; GG VI supporters include Bom Bom Island and the Omali Lodge for logistics and lodging, The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abel, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke. GG VII has been funded by a very generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Mrs. W.H.V.“D.A.” Brooke, Thomas B. Livermore, Rod C. M. Hall, Timothy M. Muller, Prof. and Mrs. Evan C. Evans, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Clarence G. Donahue, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, and a heartening number of “Coolies”, “Blackhawk Gang” returnees and members of the Academy Docent Council. Once again we are deeply grateful for the continued support of the Omali Lodge (São Tomé) and Bom Bom Island (Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging and especially for sponsoring part our education efforts for GG VII.

Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”


April 23, 2013

The Race: GG VII First Week: Snakes, Workshops and Spiders

Our first week is now complete. The botanists and Andrew our photographer went to Príncipe early so I will include their progress in a later blog. One thing I will add though is a picture Andrew emailed us yesterday, a shot of the endemic diurnal green snake, the Príncipe Soá-soá. We have only been able to collect one of these (GG I); it is an extremely elusive species.

<i>Hapsidophrys principis</i>, A. Standbridge photo, GG VII

Hapsidophrys principis, A. Standbridge photo, GG VII

 

Signe Mikulane, a PhD student at the University of Heidelberg had been in contact with me during the past few months and delayed her return to Germany to be with us for a week.  She joined us in our early school visits, and especially our annual check of the status of the large tree where we find the Sao Tome giant treefrog.

Bob and Signe, V. Schnoll photo, GG VII

Bob and Signe, V. Schnoll photo, GG VII

 

We found no adults but Signe dug her hand into the tree hole and came up with tadpoles, so we know the tree is still in use. In the picture above, there are several tadpoles in her hands.

 

Velma Schnoll & Signe Mikulane return from the frog tree, RCD photo, GG VII

Velma Schnoll & Signe Mikulane return from the frog tree, RCD photo, GG VII

 

With the arrival of Roberta Ayres (and Dr. Szuts) the biodiversity education team was complete.

Ayres and Szuts arrive in Sao Tome, RCD photo, GG VII

Ayres and Szuts arrive in Sao Tome, RCD photo, GG VII

 

Saturday we held our first ever teacher workshop at Escola Primaria Maria de Jesus, the largest primary school in the country (2,000+ kids).

RCD photo, GG VII

RCD photo, GG VII

 

We spoke to 58 teachers (all of them) about island biodiversity in more depth so that they can use the materials we have brought more efficiently. The hour and a half presentation was extremely well received, even though we had to project our powerpoint on the back of a canvas painting!

RCD photo, GG VII

RCD photo, GG VII

 

Although we are concentrating on fourth grade this year, the teachers were from all grades and we have already noticed that our materials, the posters, the coloring books, etc. are used widely at many different levels.

Education Team:  Velma Schnoll, Roberta Ayers, Roberta dos Santos, RCD photo, GG VII

Education Team: Velma Schnoll, Roberta Ayers, Roberta dos Santos, RCD photo, GG VII

 

Dr. Tamas Szuts, Professor of Biology at the University of West Hungary is our jumping spider expert. We took him into the field early, to the south end of the island and he began collecting.

Tamas is using a simple sweep net, RCD photo, GG VII

Tamas is using a simple sweep net, RCD photo, GG VII

 

Tamas is using a beating pan here. He holds it beneath a bush and beats the latter. By the way, these pictures do not do Tamas justice. He is about 6’ 8” tall.

Tamas with beating pan, RCD photo, GG VII

Tamas with beating pan, RCD photo, GG VII

 

He brings specimens back live and then photographs them in great detail.  This is Tamas’s photo setup in our room and the results are truly spectacular.  By the way, the bottle on the right is NOT vodka; it is lab grade ethyl alcohol for the preservation of DNA.

Tamas photo setup, RCD photo, GG VII

Tamas photo setup, RCD photo, GG VII

 

The second two images are salticid, or jumping spiders; the first is of a different group.

Spider, T. Szuts photo, GG VII

Spider, T. Szuts photo, GG VII

Spider, T. Szuts photo, GG VII

Spider, T. Szuts photo, GG VII

Spider, T. Szuts photo, GG VII

Spider, T. Szuts photo, GG VII

 

In this YouTube video, Tamas Szuts describes his fieldwork: URL: http://youtu.be/LDdFMn0eARw

More soon when Rayna, our frog student arrives and we reunite with the rest of the science team.

Here’s the parting shot:

Satocao workers returning from cacao plantation, V. Schnoll photo, GG VII

Satocao workers returning from cacao plantation, V. Schnoll photo, GG VII

 

PARTNERS

We are most grateful to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for their continuing authorization to collect and export specimens for study, and to Ned Seligman, Roberta dos Santos and Quintino Quade of STePUP of Sao Tomehttp://www.stepup.st/, our “home away from home”. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences for largely funding our initial two expeditions (GG I, II). The Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden provided logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), and special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-V expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Sheila Farr Nielsen; GG VI supporters include Bom Bom Island and the Omali Lodge for logistics and lodging, The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abel, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke. GG VII has been funded by a very generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Mrs. W.H.V.“D.A.” Brooke, Thomas B. Livermore, Rod C. M. Hall, Timothy M. Muller, Prof. and Mrs. Evan C. Evans, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Clarence G. Donahue, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, and a heartening number of “Coolies”, “Blackhawk Gang” returnees and members of the Academy Docent Council. Once again we are deeply grateful for the continued support of the Omali Lodge (São Tomé) and Bom Bom Island (Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging and especially for sponsoring part our education efforts for GG VII.

Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”


January 4, 2013

The Race: Peregrinations of a Pinniped (Our Islands get Seal of Approval)

I have recently learned from my island friend Madalena Patacho of Bom Bom Island that a Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus) was seen and photographed on a beach at the north end of Príncipe Island and was also later seen by a number of islanders along the São Tomé coast.

The Cape (South African) fur seal, Arctocephalus pusillus at Praia Sundy, Principe Id. December 2012. photo by Jamili

Why is this noteworthy? It is special because although vagrant individuals of this large species have occasionally been seen as far north as the southern border of Angola, the nearest breeding colony of Cape (or South African) fur seals is just under 2,700 km south of Príncipe, at Cape Cross Namibia!  This is almost exactly the same distance as between Príncipe and Kampala, Uganda.

My colleague, Bastien Loloum works for MARAPA, an NGO on the islands heavily involved in marine life and conservation. Bastien is coordinator of a cetacean  monitoring program there. So far they have recorded ten species of cetaceans but he informs me that there are no formal records of the Cape fur seal in the islands waters.  However, he and his colleagues think that this is may be the second or third account of a vagrant fur seal there during the past decade.  This would be rare indeed, but for reasons given below, I am not too surprised.

Map from  IUCN Red list.

The Cape or South African fur seal is the largest of its kind (Otariidae= fur seals + sea lions; true seals lack external ears and belong to a different family, the Phocidae); males reach 2.27m in body length and 360kg in mass. Females are much smaller. As the map shows, this species lives and breeds along the South African and Namibian coast. There are about 23 major breeding colonies, and there are population estimates of over one million individuals. In 1992,  I was fortunate to explore the Skeleton Coast of Namibia by air from Capetown to about 16º south latitude, and the Cape fur seal colonies were impressive to say the least.

Above the Namib coast;  RCD photo 1992

Above the Namib coast;  RCD photo 1992

Later and somewhat farther north, we were able to approach a colony by land as there were intervening rocks disguising our presence.

On the Namib Coast.  RCD phot. 1992

On the Namib Coast. RCD phot. 1992

Note the conspicuous external ear which is one characteristic that differentiates these mammals from true seals. RCD phot. 1992

The key to understanding how these enormous populations of large pinnipeds are sustained, and how one individual might have arrived in the Gulf of Guinea 2700 km to the north lies in understanding the nature of the Benguela Current which flows up the west coast of southern Africa. The Benguela is a cold current and is thus highly oxygenated water. This supports vast amounts of plankton which in turn provide sustenance for a huge marine fauna “higher up the chain.” In fact, the Benguela Current is one of the richest fisheries in the world.

Notice the persistent, thick, slightly discolored foam on the shore which indicates high plankton content in the water. RCD phot. 1992

A major factor important to our seal story and indeed, perhaps to the early colonization of the Gulf of Guinea islands’ unique plants and animals, is the fact that the Benguela Current flows from South to North and has undoubtedly done so since the Atlantic Ocean opened up in the Cretaceous.

Dominant currents in  the Gulf of Guinea and South Africa.  CAS construct

As the map shows, the Benguela flows north past the Congo River Delta. At the same time, the Guinea Current flows West to East across the Niger Delta. These two currents converge in the Bight of Benin to form the South Equatorial Current, and this major current flows due West, directly through the Gulf of Guinea Islands and across the Atlantic.

Hypothesized raft. artwork by Richard E. Cook. insert photos D. Lin GG I and II

Because these two major currents cross the deltas of two of the mightiest rivers in Africa each with huge interior drainages, then change direction westward through São Tomé and Príncipe suggested to us that many of the endemic plants and animals on the two islands arrived there millions of years ago by rafting.  We suggested that the raft(s) would be large chunks of riverbank which broke off and floated to the sea. Our hypothesis that the rafts would have been very large is supported by the fact that a significant percentage of the unique reptiles (and one amphibian) of both islands are burrowing species (see inset, above), unlikely to cross ocean barriers on small floating objects.  We published this hypothesis in the Journal of Biogeography in 2007.

With respect to our Cape fur seal visitor, a closer look at the first image reveals that this animal ran afoul of a fishing operation of some sort; note the blue polyethylene rope or netting around its neck which may have come from a trawling operation to the south.  While it is highly unlikely that the poor creature was dragged 2700km, it IS possible that having been entangled, and then escaping, the seal became disoriented and probably very much weakened.  It seems likely that the “line of least resistance” would be to follow the Benguela Current until it converged with the South Equatorial Current, ultimately depositing the animal in the waters off São Tomé and Príncipe. This, in a sense, would be following part of the same dispersal pathway as the original plant and animal colonizers of the islands if our rafting hypothesis is correct.  It is impossible to know for sure, but this seems to me a possible scenario.

Here’s the parting shot:

Blue-breasted kingfisher. This one hangs out above Bom Bom Island, Principe. Weckerphoto -GG III

PARTNERS
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, (GG I, II), the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to collect and export specimens for study. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-V expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Sheila Farr Nielsen; GG VI supporters include HBD of Bom Bom and the Omali Lodge for logistics and lodging, The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abell, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, John and Judy Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke.
Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


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