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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

September 2, 2011

The Race: An Embarrassing Surprise in Henrique’s Garden

Last May while still in the islands I wrote a blog entitled “Henrique’s Spider.”  Henrique Pinto da Costa is my good friend and former Minister of Agriculture in the Republic of São Tomé e Príncipe. We are quite close and call each other “Bob 42” and “Henrique 42”, referring to the year of our respective births (There is a mutual friend, “Bruce 42” as well – Bruce Potter, who runs the Island Research Foundation in Washington D.C..

Since we left the islands, Henrique’s brother, Manuel, has been elected the new President of the Republic;  in fact Manuel Pinto da Costa was also the country’s first president after independence from Portugal in 1975.

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“Bob 42″ and “Henrique 42″ in Henrique’s Garden, Sao Tome.  A. Stanbridge GGV

As I wrote some months ago, we found some remarkable spiders of the genus Gasteracantha in Henrique’s garden which I brought back to the Academy for identification as, at the time, I did not recall ever seeing this strange spider on earlier expeditions.

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Quintino Quade spider hunting in the garden.  A. Stanbridge. GG V

I gave the spiders to our experts in Entomology who tentatively identified them as Gasteracantha sanguinolenta, a very widespread species  on the mainland.

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Henrique’s Gasteracantha – first sighting. A. Stanbridge GG V

A few weeks ago, another old island friend, Angus Gascoigne of ISP, a lecturer at the islands’ polytecnic institute, asked me if I knew about an endemic island spider called Gasteracantha thomasinsulae; he also pointed out that we, the California Academy of Sciences, actually house the type material, the specimens from which this endemic species was named!  This came as a surprise to the Entomology staff, but then that department houses over 15 million specimens.   Darrell Ubick of Entomology went into our enormous collections, located the type material, compared it with the specimens we brought back and sure enough, Henrique’s spiders are the endemic Gasteracantha thomasinsulae, so far known only from the island of São Tomé and NOT a widespread African species!

Here is Gasteracantha thomasinsulae, an endemic spider  from Henrique 42’s garden: A Stanbridge GG V
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gasteracantha-thomasinsula

These spiders were first discovered by a professional collector named Borys Malkin, who collected a series of them in 1949 for Dr. Ed Ross, one of our entomologists. They were found in a number of localities including Nova Ceilão, Zampalma and Macambrara.  Dr. Ross sent the specimens to Dr. Allan Archer, a specialist at the University of Alabama, who ultimately described them as a new species in 1951.

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The original type series collected in 1949, in the collections of the California Academy of Sciences  RCD phot

This is what large natural history museums and their faculties are for.  I wonder though if Angus had not written me how long it might have taken to realize what we had!
Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi!

The parting shot:

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The shared love and respect of teachers.  Sao Tome. GG V

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, 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 support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe  and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who have made the last three 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. Our expeditions can be supported by tax-free donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


August 16, 2011

The Race: In Defense of the Road Less Traveled

In Memory of Rebecca C. Wenk: 1979-2011

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Bom Successo Botanical Gardens, Sao Tome. (Weckerphoto. GG III)

When asked what one does for a living, many can easily respond with but one of three simple words: “medicine, law, or business.”  The societal value of these career paths is constantly reinforced and requires no embellishment nor further explanation.  Since our dads and moms (or grandparents) came home from WWII, these professions and their variations have been the tried and true paths to property, prestige and power: the “American Dream.”

But there are some among us for whom the goals of the American Dream are simply irrelevant.  While I doubt there is a single biologist anywhere who would not love to have the freedom of economic security, in truth this is simply not as important to us as doing what we love – that which fascinates us and keeps us in a constant state of active curiosity and quest.  I firmly believe that for most of us, this obsession is innate; we are born with it, and our profession chooses us, not the other way around.

So our response to the question is frequently troublesome, especially when it gets to the inevitable: “Why?”  “Why do you spend your life studying weird plants? or African frogs? or spiders? or diatoms?”  An honest response to this would be, “because I love it,” but we don’t say this because as Americans, it would make us seem selfish, immature and even an impediment to mainstream progress.  And, of course, the unspoken question is really:  “What good is it? What does it do for ME?”

Describing our values and feelings to others who lack our passion is nearly impossible–there is simply no emotional shared frame of reference, but I can at least say this: based on my own life experience, there is simply no joy on earth that can compare with the thrill of academic discovery… I don’t just mean finding a new species (exciting, yes, but a pain to describe scientifically!);  I also mean discovering a new relationship, or a new connection, or arriving at a new concept.  This “Aha!” moment transcends all other emotions I have ever experienced.  In 2008 during the Gulf of Guinea III expedition, I learned that watching the thrill of discovery happen to a young student for the first time is just as wonderful as experiencing it myself.

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Rebecca among the world’s largest Begonia, Lagoa Amelia.  (T Daniel phot. GG III)

Rebecca Wenk was a curatorial assistant in the Academy’s Botany Department and also the graduate student of Dr. Tom Daniel, curator of Botany, my colleague and companion on a number of Gulf of Guinea island expeditions.  Rebecca’s Master’s project at San Francisco State University was a study of a group of plants, one rare species of which was found on Sao Tome and Principe, and so her advisor Tom brought her along with us on the GG III expedition.   Rebecca REALLY needed this plant!

She was a real character.  The fact that she was the only female among the seven of us did not inhibit her in the least.  As a member of an academic family, she was not at all shy about challenging each and every of us at one time or another and usually in a voice that commanded attention – a quite memorable voice, at that.  She was a fine boonie rat, tirelessly collecting and pressing plants but also joining in the various activities of the rest of us.

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Rebecca visits the mycologists, Drs. Perry and Desjardin as they prepare mushroom collections,  Principe  RCD phot. GG III]

Our first week and half on the larger island of São Tomé was full of adventure and highly successful for all us; we collected up and down the central mountain, the west and east coasts, but Rebecca could not find her plant.  Later the group flew to the smaller, much older island of Príncipe. During GG I and II, we had no transport on Príncipe, and thus had not been able to sample this fascinating island in any detail.  GG III was the first year we were offered the logistical support of Africa’s Eden, an ecotourism company that owns two fine lodges, the Omali on São Tomé and Bom Bom on Príncipe. The company also has fishing boats and vehicles on both islands allowing us access to remote areas otherwise inaccessible.

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The Red Truck; Ramos, Dr. Perry and Wes Eckerman.  (R. Wenk phot. GG III)

Bom Bom resort drove us around in an open red truck with benches in back, on roads and trails we had not known existed.  They also furnished us with Ramos, a guide who soon became a good friend and supporter on all of our subsequent expeditions.  On our first full day, Ramos drove us up a very steep, rather scary road to his roça (plantation), high on Pico Papagaio (Parrot Peak).

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Pico Papagaio in background, south of Principe Airport.  (R. Wenk photo GG III)

As we were slowly proceeding up the track, at about the 300 m level, Rebecca let out a series of shrieks, leapt out of the truck and prostrated herself on the steep, downhill side of the road!  She had found her plant, Elytraria marginata! It is important to note here that Rebecca saw and found it herself; no one brought it to her, and none of us probably would have noticed it, even Dr. Daniel!   This little population of Elytraria was the only one we found during all of GG III.  To this day, there is no consensus among those of us witnesses as to what words Rebecca was actually screaming, but we are all agreed that it was in sheer joy.

I have a series of pictures of Rebecca racing around at the discovery site, hooting and hollering, but the best image of all is this one, taken by Wes Eckerman, our photographer:

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Rebecca with her “questing beast,” Elytraria marginata!  (Weckerphoto GG III)

Shortly after the discovery, we reached Ramos’ plantation and had lunch; the glow of Rebecca’s “aha” moment is still obvious on her face (and also on the face of her adviser, Dr. Tom Daniel!)

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Post discovery lunch at Roca Papagaio. (Weckerphoto GG III)

Two years later, Rebecca C. Wenk was awarded her MSc degree in Botany from San Francisco State University, and in the next year, her dissertation was formally published:

Rebecca C. Wenk and Thomas F. Daniel. 2009. Molecular Phylogeny of Nelsonioideae (Acanthaceae) and Phylogeography of Elytraria. Proc. C. A.S. 60:53-68.
This paper is considered an important contribution to our understanding of this group of shrimp plants and according to Tom Daniel, it has stimulated additional work by others; this is one of our goals as scientists.

Rebecca was a fine botanist with a good and inquiring mind and a bright future; a career in academia was certainly one of her options should she have chosen it.  But only a couple of weeks ago Rebecca Wenk died of cancer, suddenly and tragically, at the age of 32.  All of us at the Academy feel her loss deeply; the Department of Botany where she worked is especially bereft.  Those of us who were with her during her special moment on the remote island of Príncipe in 2006 feel particularly blessed to have been witness to it.

The parting shot.

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Loss.  Praia Mutamba (Shipwreck Cove), Sao Tome.  (J. Ledford phot GG I)

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 export specimens for study.  Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who have made the last three 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. Our expeditions can be supported by tax-free donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


May 18, 2011

The Race: Henrique’s Spider

We have been back from GG V for a week or so now, and Velma and I are still trying to sift through the happy kaleidoscope of our experiences. Our photographer Andrew Stanbridge went on to further adventure with my kids in Ethiopia, so I suspect it will take him longer to decompress!

GG V was different; in over 40 years of fieldwork, this was the only expedition I have led in which I did very little science – mostly outreach and lecturing which were of course our goals this time. But, you can take the boy out of science, but not the science…….. etc. So along with lecturing, distributing posters and meeting important citizens, we did manage to do a little science.

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The Sao Tome giant tree frog  D. Lin Phot – GG I

Readers of this blog (Glorious Ghost…. May, 2008) will already know about the endemic Sao Tome giant tree frog that breeds in holes in trees in the higher elevations of Sao Tome Island. Although we have not collected any since 2006, on every expedition I always check one particular tree to make sure its holes are still in use by the frogs. And I keep the location of the tree a secret, as I would hate to see these wonderful critters in the pet trade. This Olea is the only tree we have found with holes low enough to give easy access to the breeding holes.

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Olea tree. V. Schnoll phot – GG V

This time we found no adults but obvious signs that the frogs still use them.

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Olea tree. V. Schnoll phot.- GG V.

An egg mass was present in one of the holes testifying to the fact that the frogs are still around. I have no idea of population levels as these frogs appear largely to be canopy dwellers, but I doubt they are rare as they can be heard at night calling from high up in the trees.

On the eastern side of the island, our jumping off point for high elevation work like this has always been Bom Sucesso, where the main Trinidade road ends. This combination Park Obo Headquarters, meeting place, tourist destination and overnight facility for hikers and scientists at about 1000m is about as high as you can go by vehicle, and it is also a charming Botanical Garden. Until recently it has also functioned as the National Herbarium, curated by Faustino de Oliviera. Much of our duplicate Academy plant specimens are housed there complete with data labels.

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Lagoas, our old friend, guiding tourists at Bom Sucesso.  V. Schnoll phot– GG V

During GG V, we were saddened to learn that the various projects that have supported Bom Sucesso have been exhausted and except for a few guides waiting for tourists, no one seems to be maintaining the botanical garden and the herbarium– they are rapidly falling into disrepair.

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Andrew and Velma lunching at Bom Sucesso.  RCD phot–GG V

This is particularly tragic in that it is the National Herbarium, and I have always felt strongly that African countries should share in the biological discoveries made in their territories. Moreover it is frequently visited tourists attraction. Regrettably, there is no minimal, base-line government support to keep such entities going. My guess is that it would  take only two salaries to survive the lean periods between projects: one for a full-time gardener and one for the Herbarium Curator.

Down the mountain at about 800m and not far from the waterfalls of Sao Nicolau is the lovely home of my friend, Henrique Pinto da Costa.

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Henrique Pinto da Costa viewing a poster.   V. Schnoll phot.– GG V

Henrique is the former Minister of Agriculture and one of our most valuable friends; I have learned much about the history and people of Sao Tome and Principe from him, and he has appeared in earlier blogs.

On our first GG V visit to Henrique’s he gave us a tour of his gardens which are extensive and impressive.

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Henrique’s garden.  R. Ayres phot–GG IV

As we were walking through, Velma called my attention to a rather amazing-spider, among Henrique’s plants, and I recognized it as a Gasteracantha. This is a spider I am familiar with from my early days in East Africa.

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Henrique’s spider. A. Stanbridge phot.– GG V

Gasteracantha is an orb weaver, although it does not look like one. They are solitary and weave a flat, disc-shaped web, but also have strange lateral spine-like projections from the body. On GG I, back in 2001, we had two arachnologists with us and made a large collection. This collection has yet to be analyzed but having been with both spider people, I could not remember ever collecting this genus on the islands.

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Gasteracantha sanguinolenta? strange dorsal view.  A. Stanbridge phot — GG V.

We did not touch the spiders, but when we returned to our base in Sao Tome, I emailed Dr. Charles Griswold, my colleague, one of the world’s experts on spiders and the lead arachnologist on GGI. I informed him that I could not recall ever collecting members of this genus on our earlier trips to the islands, and should I collect some.

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Dr. Charles Griswold at Lagoa Amelia. D. Lin phot — GG I

Charles response: Get ‘em!The parting shot of our 22 April blog is of my long-time friend and island field companion, Quintino Quade Cabral, collecting spiders in Henrique’s garden. We got a fine series of Gasteracantha and also some of a different, non-spiny species that appears to be somewhat colonial. The specimens are in our spider lab awaiting identification. A preliminary ID suggests they may be something called the Blood-red spiny spider, G. sanguinolenta. This has an enormous range so it well might be. On the other hand, a closer look at Sao Tome and Principe specimens frequently brings surprises.

More when our photographer, Andrew returns. My next Summer Systematics Intern, Elizabeth Miller, will be working on the genetics of Greef’s giant gecko, supposedly the same critter on both islands…. but time will tell.

The Parting shot:

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Andrew Stanbridge at Monte Cafe, Sao Tome.   V. Schnoll phot–GG V

PARTNERS

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund (GG I), Hagey Research Venture Fund (GG II) of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), STeP UP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bonfim, 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 and Mariana Carvalho of Zuntabawe and Faustino de Oliviera, Curator of the National 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 Mrs. Sheila Farr Nielsen for helping make these expeditions possible. Tax-deductable donations in support of this work can be made to “CAS-Gulf of Guinea Fund.


April 27, 2011

The Race: A Tale of Two Ties

The Hon. Toze Cassandra is the Regional President of Principe.  This older of the two islands is semi-autonomous within the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe.  President Cassandra is unforgettable; rather tall for these islands, he has a palpable  aura of dignified authority but it is strongly laced with kindness and humor.  The first time we met was during GG II when we were summoned to the presidential offices to pay our respects.  For obvious reasons, not one of us had a tie, which I learned later was required protocol inherited from Portuguese colonial times.  Since I could not officially enter his offices, Toze actually came out into the high-ceilinged hallway and met with us for half an hour; as I recall we ultimately ended up sitting on the floor.

The second formal meeting was last year during GG IV, and I made a major point of bringing a tie and a major point of letting him know that I had brought the damned thing all the way from the States just to meet with him! As I said he is a man of great humor.  Last year at this time, I described our summons, a couple of days later, to a beer party with his entire cabinet on a remote beach.

Yesterday we were due in his “chambers” at 3PM- we did not learn this until about 12:30 which is not a lot of leeway.  But, I was ready; a hand-painted frog tie (my sister-in-law does them).  The picture below is of tropical bioformal attire.

Velma our poster project coordinator cleans up just fine, but I had forgotten to bring a tie for our photographer, Andrew (who, by the way, is my nephew).  Trying to find a tie on Principe Island within an hour is just a skosh difficult. The new manager of Bom Bom Lodge, is a Frenchman, Francois Chapuis, so I figgered there was a chance… I got a long, languid, mildly amused look followed by, “Peut-etre, vous desirez un Hermes?”  No joy.  Now late, we roared up past the newly refurbished airport, stopped in front of a little wooden house on stilts, and our driver Joao, ran inside…we heard muffled exclamations.. he then emerged with a rather elegant, tasteful Brooks Brothers-ian blue tie!!

Down we raced to the central plaza. As we prepared to enter the palatial abode, I noticed a tall man on the street corner in shirt-sleeves, speaking ardently into a cell phone.  I caught his eye, and waved the bottom of my tie at him…a very broad grin in return.. it was of course, His Excellency President Toze Cassandra, totally tie-less!

The rest of our audience was delightful, as they always have been. It is probably best described in Andrew’s pictures below.. our posters and biodiversity message have been as warmly received here on Principe as they have been on the big island.



On the way past the airport we stopped at the little blue house on stilts… the gentleman within turned out to be the driver Joao’s brother. What he is doing with a tie of that quality on Principe I will probably never know, but now he also owns a unique hand-painted frog tie by Linda Raffel.  And Linda is undoubtedly the only Bay Artist with one of her pieces in the Gulf of Guinea Islands.

Here’s the parting shot.

See you soon!

all images © Andrew Stanbridge

PARTNERS
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund (GG I), Hagey Research Venture Fund (GG II) of the California Academy of Sciences, 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 Bonfim, 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 Zuntabawe 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, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, and Mrs. Sheila Farr Nielsen for helping make these expeditions possible. Tax-deductable donations in support of this work can be made to “CAS-Gulf of Guinea Fund.”


April 22, 2011

The Race: The Sharing Begins

This is our seventh day, and we have been to all the schools, ministries, health centers and public places we can find, giving our biodiversity posters to head masters, principals, ministers. etc.. We started at the southern end of Sao Tome on one side, the town of Santa Catarina and worked north; then Porto Alegre on the east coast, working toward the city. This morning we delivered posters to a number of the bigger town schools but then spent the afternoon hunting spiders in the garden of Henrique da Costa, former Minister of Agriculture and a dear friend and wise counselor. As to our main mission, how have our posters been received? I thought I would just post a number of images of our poster adventures, and you can decide for yourself!

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And of course we had to jump back in the bush:

The Parting Shot:

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PARTNERS
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund (GG I), Hagey Research Venture Fund (GG II) of the California Academy of Sciences, 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 Bonfim, 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 Zuntabawe 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, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, and Mrs. Sheila Farr Nielsen for helping make these expeditions possible. Tax-deductable donations in support of this work can be made to “CAS-Gulf of Guinea Fund.”


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