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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

January 27, 2011

The Race: Celebrations, Updates and a Memorial

I have been informed by a colleague that my last blog was a tad on the “heavy” side; I cannot apologize for this as sometimes science is difficult to describe in an informal blog, but this blog will be slightly different.

First celebration. We have just learned that Island Biodiversity Race has been ranked #3 Best Biodiversity Blog by The Pimm Group of Duke University (US).

Here is the link: http://thepimmgroup.org/919/best-biodiversity-blogs/

Needless to say, it is wonderfully gratifying to learn that people have been reading this, and thus that it is worth the effort. But it is way more important that the people of São Tomé and Príncipe and their unique islands are beginning to get some attention, especially with development looming.

In earlier blogs I have mentioned our poster project. The posters are meant to do the same thing as the blog but will be much more accessible to the Sao Tomeans — not too many fishermen carry laptops in their dugouts! Below is a finished poster (lacking one logo) and when printed and laminated, we intend to post them in every school and public building that will have them as a visual message that the islands are unique. Each individual image is an endemic species, and there are 5 different iterations of two sizes with different species. The one below will be 20 X 24”, others will be nearly twice as large. We are very close to printing.

THERE ARE NO OTHER ISLANDS LIKE OURS!!

You will note that there are no fish in the above poster, nor will there be any in the first round of posters. While we have a number of new species, none has been officially described as yet.  However, luckily the Academy was just visited by Dr. Luiz Rocha of the University of Texas. Luiz was on a 2006 marine expedition that led to a publication on the coastal fishes of São Tomé and Príncipe. Another author on that same paper was our own Dr. Tomio Iwamoto who was a participant in both GG I and GG II and whose island work has been featured on this blog many times. Just to prove there are gorgeous endemic fishes  found only in the islands, here are two, courtesy of Dr. Rocha.

Thalassoma newtoni, an endemic wrasse. (Rocha)

Clepticus africanus, another endemic wrasse. (Rocha)

Second celebration. I introduced myself once at the beginning of this blog back in 2008; I won’t again beyond suggesting you see the first and second blog and mentioning that I and many of our Gulf of Guinea expedition scientists and grad students are part of a very old scientific organization. Yesterday, our Department of Herpetology (my home) just cataloged our 300,000th specimen. This is a very BIG deal, and our reptile and amphibian collection (including all of our São Tomé and Príncipe material) is the 6th largest collection in the world.

(l-r: me, Jens Vindum, Sr. Collections Mgr., and Lauren Scheinberg, Research Assistant. – phot. V. Schnoll

Updates:  I still have no final word on our millepedes, currently being studied at the Royal Central African Museum by a colleague, but the last hint was that we have three species (one new), all of one genus, Globanus. And just before he left for southern Chile, Jim Shevock (GG IV) showed me a manuscript on a host of new records and new species of bryophytes from São Tomé and Príncipe.  He is submitting the paper for publication with his European colleagues.

Finally, we got news from the islands a few weeks ago of the death of our friend, Abade. Abade was Ned Seligman’s cook and great character. I first met him 12 years ago when I went alone to the islands to begin organizing the future expeditions with the help of STeP UP, Ned’s NGO. Abade had a sort of secret, enigmatic, vaguely evil smile that somehow reminded me of the way a sorceror should look.  He had a wonderful sense of humor and I jam convinced he understood English perfectly well… he just wouldn’t speak it to me! Just one Abade story among many: during GG I, we were desperate to find one of the endemic frog species, Newton’s rocket frog (below).

Newton’s rocket frog, Ptychadena newtoni – endemic to Sao Tome

We were assured they were once common downtown but we had been  unsuccessful so far. At dinner one night at Ned’s, Abade (through Ned) decided he would show us these frogs, and we all marched off into the night through a grassy field near the airport. As we were searching by flashlight, we suddenly heard the thunder of many running boots coming down metal stairs in two large building off in the gloom.  Abade had led us onto the army base and the troops had obviously seen our lights in the field! Believe me, if there is one place anywhere in Africa you do not ever want to be , it is on an military base! We all ran like a flock of chickens with Abade in the lead, of course.  We remained frogless for a couple of  weeks until we figured out how to find us.  All of us of all of the GG teams will miss  him.

More anon.

The parting shot:

Abade, in Ned’s kitchen.   Ciao, Amigo!  RCD phot – GG IV.

PARTNERS

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the continued support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, 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 and Velma and Michael Schnoll for helping make these expeditions possible. Our expeditions can be supported by donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


Filed under: Uncategorized — bob @ 6:23 pm

October 25, 2010

The Race: News from the Moss People

This month I had hoped to describe part of our island educational project but things have been too busy here at the Academy; our Fall calendars are always full as it is the beginning of the academic year in the US. We have also hit some snags on our planned São Tomé- Príncipe biodiversity posters. We have the funding (thanks to donors to STeP UP) and the imagery from our expeditions; in fact we have everything except a designer. In the March blog, I included two of the mockups which were among those we took to the islands; everyone we showed them to liked them very much. It turns out though, that producing 200 high resolution posters of large size is not an easy undertaking, but we are working on it. Below is one of my favorites:


“Only In Sao Tome!!”  D. Lin phot – GGI

There is much to relate on many fronts including news of the millipedes which are currently with an expert in Belgium, the identity of the Príncipe shrew, Lisette’s work on cobra jita, etc., all which I must write about later.

If you follow this account, you have already met Jim Shevock, one of the foremost bryophyte workers anywhere, and you will recall that during GG IV, he made a huge collection of liverworts, hornworts and mosses.


[Jim Shevock with Afrocarpus mannii, Morro Provaz. T. Daniel phot – GG IV

Jim’s island collection represents an enormous amount of work and will take a long time to fully analyze, but here is a progress report from him:

“Of the 700 bryophyte collections made during GGIV, nearly 275 of them represent liverwort and hornwort specimens. The specimens obtained from these two taxonomic groups have now been named to species by two world experts residing in Dresden and Budapest who specialize in African liverworts. The results are very impressive. Prior to GGIV, the published liverwort and hornwort checklist contained 85 species for São Tomé and 33 species for Príncipe (20 species are shared between the two islands). We have now added 26 liverworts as “new” for São Tomé and 19 species as “new” for Príncipe.


Orthostichella sp. (hanging).  Lagoa Amelia. J. Shevock phot – GG IV.

The next phase is to complete the identification process for the mosses collected during GGIV. We anticipate the data on the mosses will be similarly impressive. The currently published moss checklist for São Tomé contains 76 species and only 14 mosses are reported in the literature for Príncipe. We anticipate the moss species list to expand markedly. We already have a moss family to report as new not only to the Gulf of Guinea but to West Africa (the Symphyodontaceae); other African records are known only from Malawi, Mozambique, Madagascar and Reunion Id. We have at least one species of moss new to science , and there will probably be more. All of the material obtained within the moss families Fissidentaceae and Neckeraceae are now identified to species, and in both cases, new taxa are documented for the country and from both islands. Some species will also be reported for the first time as occurring within West Africa. Based on the data obtained so far, the actual bryoflora of São Tomé and Príncipe is much richer than initially projected. Conducting these expeditions is but the first step toward the discovery of the biota of São Tomé and Príncipe.

Moss Fissidens ovatus and Begonia annobonensis, SW Príncipe. RCD phot – GG IV.

I posted a similar photo in the March blog when we thought the tiny flowering plant above might be an undescribed species of Begonia; we subsequently learned that this species is already known to science, but it is still possible that this southwestern Príncipe population may represent the smallest Begonia plant in the world. And, now we know that the rest of the rock is covered with the widespread tropical moss species, Fissidens ovatus.

The parting shot:


Santa Catarina buddies. 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, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the continued support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, 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 and Velma and Michael Schnoll for helping make these expeditions possible. Our expeditions can be supported by donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


Filed under: Uncategorized — bob @ 3:32 pm

September 18, 2010

The Race: A New Mammal for Principe!

Strange how things work sometimes! Hard on last month’s confirmation that the São Tomé shrew, Crocidura thomensis is, indeed, a full endemic species, comes exciting news from my friend and colleague, Dr. Javier Juste, of the Estación Biológico Doñana, in Seville, Spain.

Eastern Pipistrelle. photo: Dr. J. Scott Altenbach

Dr. Juste is a world authority on bats and has written most of the important recent literature on the species occurring on the Gulf of Guinea Islands. Javier informs me he has just returned from an international bat conference where he heard a presentation on the evolutionary relationships among African bats of the genus Pipistrellus.

Dr. Javier Juste B. [photo: Estacion Biologica Donana]

Pipistrelles are rather small species within the large Family Vespertilionidae. This presentation included samples of some bats that Javier and his colleagues collected on Príncipe during a survey along the lower reaches of the Rio Papagaio in 1988. At the time, Dr. Juste listed them as Pipistrellus sp. because he could not identify them to any known species.

This recent study confirmed that the Príncipe bat is indeed a new species and endemic to that island; It will soon be formally described by Dr. Juste and his colleagues. So within a couple of months, two species of mammals have been discovered to be unique to the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, one on each island.

Soprano pipistrelle. [phot. J. J. Kaczanow]

In earlier papers by Dr. Juste and his colleague, Dr. Carlos Ibañez have drawn attention to the fact that over 50% of the bats of both islands are endemic, but at the subspecies level. By assigning subspecies names to organisms (three names instead of two), scientists are implying that while these organisms are physically recognizable as being different from their nearest relatives, they have not been isolated from each other long enough to become so genetically different that they can no longer interbreed. Obviously, two subspecies of the same species cannot overlap, or any physical differences would be lost through interbreeding. Now with molecular techniques, we can quite precisely determine levels of genetic differentiation. So there are now two endemic species of mammals on São Tomé and Príncipe, and as our techniques progress we are likely to discover more.

Dr. Doug Long on Sao Tome. [D. Lin phot. GGI]

During GGI in 2001 our mammalogist was Dr. Douglas Long, now Professor of Biology at Saint Mary’s College in northern California. Doug collected a number of bat specimens on that first expedition, tissues from which have since become useful to Dr. Juste in his studies.

Part of GGI bat collection, Sao Tome. [RCD phot. GGI]

A student of Dr. Juste’s is currently working with some of our tissues of Eidolon, the large São Tomé fruit bat in the picture above.

In other news, Dr. Tom Daniel’s paper on the first holosaprophyte from São Tomé and Príncipe (see June blog), has just been published, and I find it fascinating that we discovered this rare plant on the Rio Papagaio, just like Dr. Juste’s new bat; it just goes to show that there is a lot of exploration still do be done and much to learn!

The parting shot:

Principe Island, looking south from Roca Papagaio. [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, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the continued support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, 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 and Velma and Michael Schnoll for helping make these expeditions possible. Our expeditions can be supported by donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


Filed under: Uncategorized — bob @ 1:15 pm

July 9, 2010

The Race: Nightmares, Explosions and Geographic Origins

Before I get to expedition updates and cool biodiversity stuff, I must say I had recent cause to reflect on why I originally titled this blog, “Island Biodiversity Race.”  As you know, major changes are coming to the islands, and we are desperately trying to learn as much as we can about their unique fauna and flora before these changes occur.

Photo by Polly Anderson, June 24, 2010

This thing appeared off the dock of my friend Ned Seligman’s house in Sâo Tomé  town on June the 23rd.  So far as I know, it is still there; Ned and his people do not seem to be able to learn what a floating oil rig is doing there, who brought it, etc.  He emailed this image to me entitled, “Your Worst Nightmare.”

For blog newcomers, the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Sâo Tomé and Príncipe impinges on oil-bearing ocean floor, and the tiny island nation is in partnership with Nigeria to exploit these resources.

Exclusive economic zone of The Republic of Sao Tome and Principe.]

Without going into the record of environmental destruction associated with this industry, one can say at the very least that a large influx of wealth can be anticipated, along with the sorts of “development” activities that follow capital influx; and these activities almost always have a negative environmental effect.  That’s why we are in a race to find out what’s there, so that we can inform the citizens (and the world) of what they have.  Hopefully, when they have to make decisions down the road, they will have some knowledge of the potential environmental costs.

There are already plans on the big island for a deepwater harbor and a significant extension of the runway at the airport.  This is not rumor; on GG IV I spoke with several South Africans who are members of the group that is involved in these projects.

Aerial photo of Laguna Azul by Joacquim Wirth, 2010

In my view, a truly distressing plan is that of a different South African development group for Laguna Azul, one of the most beautiful and accessible sites on the big island.  This cove on the northwest part of Sâo Tomé not far from the captol is as its name suggests, famous its beauty.  It is the only spot on the islands where the baobab tree is found (Adansonia digitata), and I have watched Sao Tomean families picnic there.   My understanding is that this development group plans to reroute the main road away from Laguna Azul, then construct properties and sell them off as kind of a gated community.

A Sao Tomean Picnic at Laguna Azul [Weckerphoto, GG III]

There are rather frightening rumors about how permission for this project was obtained but as they are rumors only, I will not repeat them here.

Time for critter news.  A few weeks ago, our entomology department sent off the specimens from our millipede transacts to Dr. Rowland Shelley of the North Carolina State Museum. Recall that he had kindly agreed to try to identify them for us.  He has a wonderful website on myriapods: http://www.nadiplochilo.com/milli.html So far as we know, only one short paper on the island millipedes has been published; curiously, this paper, written in 1993, was based on a small collection made on the road to São Nicolau in the vicinity of Nova Moca, where our biologist friend Ricardo Lima lives. By chance our first GG IV millipedes came from nearly the same spot, under a log shared with a cobra bobo (Schistometopum thomense)!

Ricardo Lima at Nova Moca with cobra bobo from under our first millipede log. [ R Ayres phot.  GGIV]

Over the month, we collected millipedes in ten different locations ranging in elevation from sea level to 500+ m on Príncipe (first collections ever?) and 1500 m on Sâo Tomé.  Dr. Shelley sent me a preliminary report that in his opinion, our specimens included at least one undescribed species from the big island and perhaps two from Príncipe.  This is not surprising news, given what we have been finding over the past ten years, but what is really exciting is the fact that Dr. Shelley believes all our six + species of millipedes belong to the same family (Spirostreptidae) and genus, Globanus!  This lack of taxonomic diversity might seem disappointing but it is not; in fact, it is rather intriguing.  We may be learning more from what is not present, than what is.  The specimens are now going to Dr. Didier Van den Spiegel of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium,  a specialist on African myriapods.  If Dr. Shelley’s preliminary identifications are confirmed by Dr. Van den Spiegel, the modern oceanic island  millipede fauna may be a result of what is known as a “species explosion,” or a “species swarm.”

A Spirostreptid millipede from the Grenadines [M. de Silva phot.]

Imagine an “ancestral” form of Globanus somehow reaching (by raft?) Príncipe and/or Sâo Tomé at a time when the islands were devoid of any other millipedes.  Such a situation would present lots of empty niches into which, in the absence of any competition, the ancestral lineage would radiate, perhaps explosively.. Nature abhors a vacuum! A widely used example of this phenomenon is the swarms of different species of cichlid fishes in Lake Tanganyika, all descendants from a single colonizing species.

Species swarms have apparently occurred on other Atlantic islands, Madeira being a prime example, with earwigs (Perirrhytus), true bugs (Chinacapsus), nine species of the beetle genus, Trechus and a woodlouse genus, Procellio.

Non Gulf of Guinea Earthworm. photo-Kent Simmons from www.]

Another update:  samples of earthworms collected on Sâo Tomé in 2002 by my colleage, Dr. John Measey, of the South African National Biological Institute were sent to Dr. Csaba Csuzdi, a Hungarian oligochaete specialist in Budapest (one of the things John Measey studies is what caecilians eat).  Several years later, Dr. Csuzdi, using both his own and John’s specimens, published a comprehensive treatment of the earthworms of Sâo Tomé, recognizing 18 species.  Six of these (33%) are endemic to the island, and all six of them belong to the same genus, Dichogaster. As one might predict, all six of the endemics are high elevation species, which suggests they are present in habitats up and out of the reach of the 500 years of agricultural activities. Conversely, all of the widespread non-endemic species appear to be confined to the cultivated lowlands.  All of this suggests that the six endemic earthworms are the result of a species swarm or explosion.  Currently, we know less about the millipede fauna but what we do know suggests they may a species swarm as well.

Dr. Tom Daniel with first ST & P holosaprophyte, Rio Papagaio, Principe [RCD phot. GG IV]

In the May blog, I reported that we had found the first saprophytic plant on Sâo Tomé and Príncipe; Sciaphila ledermanni is a very rare plant indeed, and Dr. Tom Daniel’s publication on the discovery will soon be published. Saprophytes are plants that lack chlorophyll and, in this case, depend on fungi to provide sustenance from dead or decaying matter.  S. ledermannii is otherwise known only from Nigeria and Cameroon, well to the north of our islands; our discovery of this plant along two small rivers on Príncipe is intriguing, in part because of the possibility of the Niger River as its colonization pathway.

Giant Dispersal Raft, with Burrowing Endemics. [art by R. E. Cook, D. Lin phots, GG II] ]

In an much blog I discussed how my colleagues and I hypothesized that the most likely explanation for how the ancestors of the current endemic species colonized the islands was by rafting; our reasoning is based on a combination of the existence of the the two huge rivers that enter the Gulf (the Congo and Niger), the directions of the main oceanic currents in the Gulf (probably unchanged since the Cretaceous) and the fact that surface salinity drops significantly during rainy periods.

The inset in the image of the raft above includes pictures of the endemic burrowing reptiles and amphibian found only on the islands; these species do not swim or climb trees, their presence strengthens our large floating raft hypothesis.   In this 2007 publication, we did not suggest one river or the other as being the likely dispersal pathway to the islands; we just presented the evidence that either was possible.  In the case of our newly found Sciaphila, it would seem that the Niger region might be the most likely source area for this species.

An old friend of mine, Angus Gascoigne, just sent me a series of emails regarding another species with a distribution that is also very suggestive of the region of origin.

Angus Gascoigne, Contador Valley, Sao Tome. [RCD  phot. GGI]

Angus first came to the islands as an English volunteer (VSO), then worked for many years as chief technician for the Voice of America in Sâo Tomé. He currently teaches at the Instituto Superior Politecnico and is a lead biologist for ABS, the new association of Sao Tome biologists. He is a gifted naturalist, has lived on Sâo Tomé for over 20 years and published on everything from snails to Begonias.

Sao Tome Whip Spider. [J. Uyeda phot. GG II]

Angus wrote of finding a whip spider, or amblypygid, in the garden of his home in the town of Trinidade on Sâo Tomé.  To some, whip spiders might be the source of nightmares, looking vaguely like flattened, fast-moving spiders or scorpions. In fact, they are neither; they have their own order within the arachnids, the Amblypygi.  They are non-venomous, usually nocturnal predators on other arthropods . We herpetologists do a lot of work at night, and we have encountered them fairly frequently on rock walls, and bridges on Sâo Tomé.

[Sao Tome Whip Spider, waterfall en route Sao Nicolau. [J. Uyeda phot. GG III]

Angus and his colleague, Hugulay Maia, also of the ABS, have begun a study of these odd creatures, and they inform us there are two species known from the islands so far: Charinus africanus, which is considered an endemic to all three oceanic islands, and Damon tibialis. D. tibialis is currently known only from Sâo Tomé, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Angola, near the mouth of the Congo River.

Contador Valley Whip Spiders. [D. Lin phot. GG I]

As we must always bear in mind, it is quite possible that D. tibialis was inadvertently brought to the island by the Portuguese, and we cannot know for certain until we can look at their genetics.  But assuming this whip spider got to the island by natural dispersal, its current distribution might represent an example of the Congo as a source path as opposed to the Niger.

Two Possible Distribution Pathways. [C. Pfeiffer construct; RCD GG IV and J. Uyeda GG II phots]

Another possible Niger contribution is the ancestor of Africa’s largest treefrog, Leptopelis palmatus, found only on Príncipe.  It’s distribution and that of its presumed closest relative is pictured below.

Leptopelis palmatus and L. macrotis Distributions. [L. Scheinberg constr.]

I have little doubt that both major rivers have contributed to the founding populations of the marvelous endemic biota of the Republic of Sâo Tomé and Príncipe.

Before signing off, here is an update on our opening “nightmare” image, sent by our friend Polly Anderson, who took the photo.  I just received it as I was concluding this posting.

We met some guys at Pestana hotel on Friday. They work on the big oil rig in the bay, but surprise – its not an oil rig! It’s the same platform, but there are 2 cranes on it instead. Apparently it is resupplying here and waiting for the arrival of its crew. The guys were flown in here and then will go to the rig and on the 10th it is leaving for Luanda. The rig is going to lay pipes underground in the ocean for BP off the coast of Angola. It has nothing to do with São Tomé, it was just hanging out here to get supplies and its crew

The Parting Shot:

An Endemic Bird Nightmare at Nova Moca [R. Ayres phot. GG IV]

PARTNERS

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the continued support of Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, 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, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor for helping make these expeditions possible. Tax-deductable donations can be made to “CAS-Gulf of Guinea Fund.


Filed under: Uncategorized — bob @ 9:49 pm

June 25, 2010

The Race: Shipboard Discoveries from a Good Friend

I have much to report on GG IV results so far, including updates on millipedes, whip scorpions, freshwater red algae (!) and other fascinating new island critters but Academy activity level has been very high since the team got back, and I have just returned from Capetown where I gave talk on the GG Island biodiversity. This week we welcomed Eden Maloney of the University of California at Los Angeles to the lab. Eden will be working all summer on the genetics of the São Tomé shrew, samples of which have been provided by our colleague, Ricardo Lima with kind permission from the STP Ministry of Environment.

Eden “Shrewster” Maloney (UCLA) examining her first shrews at the Academy.  (phot. RCD)

In earlier blogs, we have posed the question: Is the shrew on Sao Tome, Crocidura thomensis really an endemic species, or was it introduced from elsewhere by man?  Eden will be able to answer the question in a couple of months based on comparing the DNA sequences of our samples with related mainland species.  The possibility exists that if native to São Tomé, this may prove to be the only endemic oceanic island shrew in the world! Followers of the blog will already know why this is biogeographically so unlikely.

I will update you on exciting GGIV findings in later blogs; right now I want to report on some marine activities that have just occurred since the GGIV team returned a couple of months ago. In reading the account below, bear in mind that the inshore marine organisms are just as isolated as are the terrestrial species; these are old, old islands both above and below the sea surface, and we must include marine critters adapted to the underwater parts of the islands as just as likely to have endemic species as those in the forests and other terrestrial habitats.

Quintino Quade and Dr. Tomio Iwamoto, seining on Sao Tome.  [D. Lin phot. GG I]

Readers of the blog will already be acquainted with Dr. Tomio Iwamoto, Chair of our Department of Ichthyology and veteran of GG I and GG II. During these first two expeditions, Tomio studied and seined almost all of the freshwater rivers and streams on both islands and co-authored two papers on the results; the first in 2006 was a study of the species of gobies that dominate the island freshwater environment on the islands, and the second was an update of the list of coastal marine fishes written with a number of authors in 2007.  Much of our GG I and GG II material is in this work as Tomio also interacted with the local fisherman and the fish markets.  This publication lists a total of 185 species with several not yet described.

Norwegian Research Vessel, R/V Dr. D. Fridtjof  Nansen [phot O. Alvheim, 2010]

Although he has done all of our freshwater island work, Tomio is actually a marine ichthyologist specializing in a deep-sea group called grenadiers, and he is a frequent participant on scientific trawling expeditions.

As luck would have it, shortly after the GG IV team returned to the Academy, Tomio joined the crew of the Norwegian research vessel Nansen, and although originally scheduled to trawl along the coast of Ghana the itinerary changed and the vessel actually worked the waters of São Tomé and Príncipe for two weeks.  Timing could not have been better because about this time, here at the Academy I began receiving emails from friends on the islands about a mass die-off of the local pufferfish, known also as the Oceanic or Rabbit puffer. Apparently the southeastern beaches of São Tomé were covered with dead ones, and the local people were quite concerned.  I was able to email Tomio on board the Nansen and the ship was in perfect position to look into the matter.

Oceanic or Rabbit pufferfish, Lagocephalus lagocephalus. [Phot. O. Alvheim 2010.]

According to several staff of the Nansen, such die-offs have been seen before, especially off the coast of Gabon, south to northern Angola, but appear to have become somewhat regular since 2007, usually in March-May.  The vessel monitors water salinity, current velocity and temperature at all transects trawled. None of the Rabbit puffers they studied showed any signs of disease or physical trauma; however, about 4 miles offshore of the town of São Tomé, they came upon a current boundary lined with floating dead puffers.

Jens-Otto Krakstad and Dr. Iwamoto examining dead puffers [Phot O. Alvheim 2010]

Usually such boundaries occur between bodies of water different in both salinity and/or temperature.  In their report to the STP Fisheries, they consider the possibility that rapid changes in temperature/salinity could account for these die-offs, but so little is known of the oceanography of the two islands that a positive explanation is elusive.

Giant squid (Lula) catch. Sao Tome northeast coast [ RCD phot.  2000]

It is curious that these die-offs seem to coincide with the annual appearance of large squid (called Lula). These are greatly prized by the locals who wade in the surf, catch them by hand and throw them onto the shore. We’ve eaten them—they’re good.  But it is equally possible that the appearance of the large squid is the result of some sort of breeding activity and not related to changes in the water at all, nor correlated with the puffer die-offs.

Tomio examining grouper, Sao Tome. [phot. O. Alvheim 2010]

Shipboard life for a research ichthyologist is exciting (and exhausting) as one never knows what the next net will contain, and they are hauled in as often as every 4 hours, 24 hours a day!  Tomio’s emails were delightful.  Here is some fun stuff in his own words:

We made a so-so haul yesterday afternoon, coming up with nothing much different. There was a large sea cucumber that was caught–looked like a large loaf of bread with large blotches on the dorsum. I set it aside in a pan with plans to take a tissue sample and a patch of skin for Rich Mooi’s [GG II] colleague, David Pawson………..

Unidentified sea cucumber aboard the Nansen [phot O. Alvheim]

After working up the catch, I brought the cuke into the wet lab and took my samples before going out on deck to work up the next catch. When I returned, I was startled when I discovered something thrashing about in the pan …. Lo and behold, it was a carapid, a pearl fish or fieraster, that lives within the holothuroid. Pearlfishes are freeliving or either parasitic or live as inquiline residents in many invertebrates, such as sea cucumbers, clams, tunicates, starfishes.


Unidentified Pearlfish or Feiraster  [phot O. Alvheim 2010 ]

This represents just another of many new fishes recorded from STeP…. We caught an entirely different kind of pearlfish off Ghana…….All in all, the Nansen seems to have recorded at least fifty (50 !) species of fish never before recorded for the island coastal waters, including the first specimen of a fish called Carangoides bartholomaei ever taken in the eastern Atlantic.

Carangoides bartholomaei- first specimen from the eastern Atlantic. [Phot O. Alvheim 2010]

When I first visited the islands in 2000, I was invited to dinner at what I was told was the “best restaurant in town” called the Blue Container.  I thought to myself, ”what a peculiar name for a restaurant” and remained somewhat mystified until we actually arrived, when I learned that that is exactly what it is: a light blue shipping container that each night opens up and barbeques fish! I am sure it has another name, but it is most famous as the Blue Container.

At the Blue Container: Ned Seligman (STePUP), T. D’Espiney (former ECOFAC director), me and MARAPA worker.  [RCD phot 2000).]

The Blue Container specializes in grilled Flying gurnard, highly sought after and known locally as Con- con (for English speakers pronounced “kong kong”, but without the ”g”).  The Con-con is inevitably served with breadfruit and marine snails.

Flying Gurnard or Con-conDactylopterus volitans [Iwamoto phot. 2010]

The Con-con does not fly, of course.  The name comes from the highly specialized wing-like pectoral fins; it apparently is a bottom dweller that sort of “walks” on these fins. Here is another excerpt from Tomio’s emails:

I now know why Con-con is so popular a fish in these islands: the water is full of them. I wish I had taken a shot of our first haul; pretty close to being entirely made up of [this species]!

A typical trawl haul with a lot of Con-con [Phot O. Alvheim 2010]

More Con-con [Iwamoto phot. 2010]

There is no question that such a survey is of enormous benefit to the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe; knowing the actual makeup of the fisheries resources of their island can lead to more effective management, and members of the Department of Fisheries accompanied the Nansen throughout the survey.

Staff of the STP Department of Fisheries [phot. O. Alvheim 2010]

Fisheries staff measuring Con-con. [Phot O. Alvheim 2010]

On this survey, many of the local fishermen benefitted directly! Here, again, is Dr. Iwamoto: We were off the northwestern tip [São Tomé] where we anchored and hung around overnight after setting out [off-shore] fish traps. This morning, the guys went out to retrieve them and couldn’t locate a one—taken by locals during the night.! That day, The STeP cruise leader, Jose Dias de Sousa Lopes and crew went onshore and made a deal with the local fishermen: leave our traps alone and we will give you our catch.  Thereafter, the traps were remained in place, and the local fishermen paddled out to receive this unexpected bounty!

Fishermen awaiting the Nansen catch. [Phot. O. Alvheim 2010]

There IS such a thing as a freelunch! [Phot. O. Alvheim 2010]

As a final note, Dr. Iwamoto emailed some comments about Príncipe that very much support some of my own conclusions from our work on the islands:

It seems obvious that Príncipe and São Tomé are under very different hydrographic regimes…….The waters around Príncipe lack the biomass one sees in places like Angola, but the overall size of the fishes caught is quite large, suggesting a pristine, little exploited population. Colors of fishes here also tend to be brighter, this according to one of the Norwegian biologists….

These statements reinforce the geological evidence that Príncipe is much older than the big island (twice as old in fact) and this is perhaps reflected in the age and stability of its fish populations.

Satellite image of Principe.  Arrow denotes predominent weather direction (RCD construct]

Viewed from above, one can readily see how large Príncipe must have been some 30 million years ago. The light blue areas are today at about 90 meters in depth but these margins are undoubtedly the original perimeter of the island at its earliest origins – it was probably larger than São Tomé is now.  The predominant weather in the Gulf of Guinea is from the southwest [red arrow] and probably has been for millions of years. So one can see that the island has gradually eroded away from the southwest to northeast.

Cross-section of island of Principe. [RCD construct]

In the above cross-section the part of old Príncipe that has worn away and is now under some 90 meters of water is beneath the blue arrow. In fact, the southwest exposures of Bioko, Príncipe and São Tomé are the steepest and most heavily eroded and on all three, this aspect of each of the islands is accessible only by boat.

Enough for now. Suffice to say that as I write, scientific colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution, Old Dominion University and the South African Institute of Aquatic Biology are describing at least five new marine fish species collected by the California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Expeditions.

The Parting shot.

Old fishin’ buddies on Praia das Conchas, Sao Tome.  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, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the continued support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe  and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, 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 and Velma and Michael Schnoll for helping make these expeditions possible.  Our expeditions can be supported by donations to CAS – Gulf of Guinea Fund.


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