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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

February 21, 2012

The Race: Gulf of Guinea VI, Part I (the Science)

Things have been very busy here at the Academy of Sciences, and this is one of my tardier blogs! However, part of the hustle and bustle has been in planning our next expedition, Gulf of Guinea VI.

The first good news is that our new species of gecko from Príncipe is about to be formally published in the African Journal of Herpetology, possibly as soon as April. It is bad luck to give you its name before it is published, but here is what it looks like, and we are adding yet another endemic species to our wonderful islands!

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Our new gecko near Bom Bom, Principe.  Weckerphoto- GG IV

As readers know, our expeditions have largely been privately funded since GG III, and the friends who have helped us are always celebrated in the PARTNERS section below.  However, I am going to take this early opportunity to thank the folks who are making the upcoming expedition financially possible: The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Bernard S. Schulte, John S. Livermore, John and Judy Sears and Elton Welke.

Here are the scientist participants in the upcoming GG VI which will run from 30 March until 5 May.

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Dr. Tomio Iwamoto on Sao Tome.  D Lin phot- GGI

Dr. Tomio Iwamoto is Curator Emeritus of our Ichthyology Department, and my good friend and flyfishing buddy.  He is a veteran of GG I and GG II and has already published two scientific papers as a result of these expeditions. He has also worked with São Tomé and Príncipe fisheries people in deepwater trawling around the islands (see Shipboard Discoveries….June 2010 blog).  During GG VI he wants to visit as many local fishing villages as he can on both islands to see what the most commonly caught fishes are.  His goal is to produce a popular guide for the fishermen themselves! This will not be a scientific publication.

local fish

A Longfin crevalle jack described to science only 5 years ago. Sao Tome.  A. Stanbridge phot- GG V

Brian and limpet

Dr. Brian Simison; limpet photo by  T. Laupstad]

Dr. Brian Simison is a world authority on small monovalved molluscs known as limpets, commonly found firmly attached to rocks in the coastal littoral zones.  So far as we know, this group has never before been sampled in São Tomé and Príncipe, and our expectations for new discoveries are high.

lima newshrew

Crocidura tomensis, the Sao Tome shrew. Phot by Ricardo Lima, 2010

Brian is alsoDirector of the Academy’s  Center for Comparative Genomics which is where all our genetic and molecular work is done.  He became involved in our molecular analyses of the true status of the endemic São Tomé shrew (see Unique shrew…. August 2010 blog).  Working with Eden Maloney, he discovered that the shrew on Príncipe, long thought to be a mainland species, may indeed also be an endemic to that island.  While we collected DNA of this second shrew during GG II, we collected no adults.  Assuming we receive permission from the Ministry, Brian and I will also try to secure a couple of adult Príncipe shrews. If this is indeed a unique species, we will need to be able do describe its anatomy formally.

Two graduate students will be joining us.  The first is Rayna Bell who is doing her PhD on African tree frogs at Cornell University.

frog and Rayna

Oceanic tree frog, Hyperolius thomensis (phot RCD- GG I); Rayna Bell

Rayna will be looking at a potential hybrid zone between the oceanic tree frog (above, Hyperolius molleri) and the flambouyant São Tomé giant tree frog, H. thomensis of higher elevations, which I have featured in many of these blogs.  There is something curious going on with the genetics of these species and one of Rayna’s projects will be to look at both populations from the molecular perspective.

miko and lichens

Miko Nadel and lichens (from web)

Our other graduate student is Miko Nadel, who is doing his MSc in botany at San Francisco State University under the guidance of our favorite mycologist, Dr. Dennis Desjardin, describer of the now infamous Phallus drewesi of São Tomé.  Recall that Drs. Desjardin (GG II & III) and Perry (GG III) learned that over 33% of the mushrooms of São Tomé and Príncipe are new to science.  Miko informs me that there have been only a couple of scientific papers ever written on the lichens of the islands, and that was back in the 1880’s.  So it is time for a more modern and thorough look at this flora.

Finally, we round the scientist group out with the irrepressible  James Shevock, the Academy’s bryophyte (mosses and their allies) expert.

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Jim Shevock with moss at the Omali.  RCD phot-GG IV

The results of Jim’s efforts during GG IV are summarized in the image below.  The largest uptick of new species for the islands is expected in the third paper, which we hope will be published this year.

moss UPDATES

Compilation and photo by RCD, GG IV (* this paper has since been published)

As in GG V, the new expedition will be accompanied by the world’s largest photographer, Andrew Stanbridge.  His images from GG V are magnificent, and he is a most excellent and willing field companion. His work can be viewed on the web at www.andrewstanbridge.com


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RCD and photographer Andrew Stanbridge. V. Schnoll phot – GG V

There will be two additional members of GG VI, both veterans of earlier expeditions,  Ms Velma Schnoll and Ms Roberta Ayres, but I will reintroduce  them in more detail in the second part of this blog which will be on our concurrent biodiversity education activities.

The parting shot:

E Herbst

The Jockey’s bonnet, Principe. Photo by Eddie Herbst – 2011

[Herbst]

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 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, Sheila Farr Nielsen, Corinne W. Abel and Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, Bernard Schulte, and John S. Livemore.   Our expeditions can be supported by tax-free donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


December 16, 2011

The Race: Our Omali Base and Year’s Odds and Ends.

Year’s end and things are busy, even in Academia. Here at the Academy, we are already in planning mode for GG VI but more on that in coming months. We are awaiting the publication of more of our discoveries, and I will report them here as they appear. In the meantime this is a good opportunity to thank all of you who have helped make next year’s expedition a probability: the Herbst Foundation, the “Blackhawk Gang”, and the California Academy of Sciences Docent Council.

As readers know, our mission is not only to discover and scientifically describe what is on these wonderful old islands but to let others know about it, especially the citizens. But, this also includes the business visitor and tourists primarily interested in fishing or ocean activities. The neat unique critters we are studying are not just isolated up in the higher reaches of the forest; many can be found right downtown. You just have to look.

On the beach of Praia Lagarto, between the airport and downtown São Tomé, lies the Omali Lodge. Originally built by a Mr. Hellinger, I remember it in its original incarnation as the Marlin Beach Hotel, one of the best bars in the islands– a real gathering place. It is small and quite upscale but it retains its original flavor. Folks who know the islands or have been well informed stay at the Omali; it attracts rather fascinating people.

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Omali Lodge. [Photo and toes - V. Schnoll GG V]

The Omali is pretty fancy digs for a bunch of bush biologists like us but luckily, the Omali’s owners have supported our work by allowing us to stay there during our last three expeditions. As comfortable and friendly as the Omali is, the central thing for our work is a dependable power source (although a post-fieldwork dip in the pool is not too shabby!)

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The Omali. [Weckerphoto GG III]

So as a new visitor, if you walk through the foyer and bar out to the back to the pool, you will first be struck by the enormous coconut palms. Ignore them for now; to the left around the back of the kitchen, and behind the rockwork in the pool (above) are several other palm-like trees that aren’t!

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Pandanus thomensis fruit (r) and prop roots (l). [T. Daniel GG III, IV]

These are the São Tomé screw pines, Pandanus thomensis. You can tell them from the palms by the fact that the base of each tree is supported by a number of prop roots (see right, above). Obviously, these are neither pines nor coconuts; the important thing to know is that these trees are found only on São Tomé, nowhere else in the world.

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Trachylepis maculilabris [D. Lin, GG II]

As you walk along the pool, the first quick movement in the grass is likely to be a speckle-lipped skink, particularly common during the heat of the day. These lizards are not unique to the islands but they are very good dispersers across oceanic barriers, and they are found on many of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean islands. Some of our colleagues have looked at the genetics of the São Tomé and Prìncipe skinks and suggest that while they are not endemics, they have been on the islands since long before man arrived.

lygo-thomensis-ju-iii

Lygodactylus thomensis. [J. Uyeda, GG III]

On the walls surrounding the pool and rooms lives the São Tomé day gecko, Lygodactylus thomensis, which shuttles in and out of the shade in search of insects. Most geckos are nocturnal creatures, but this group is secondarily diurnal. L. thomensis is a true endemic whose ancestors probably reached São Tomé millions of years ago; the same is true of its closest relatives, the Prìncipe day gecko, L. delicatus, and the Annobon day gecko, L. wermuthi.

scutellaridae-true-bug-weck1

Homoptera. (True bug).  [Weckerphoto, GG III

Most of the Omali plants are ornamentals from other parts of the world of course, but this does not mean they do not harbor fascinating species. Our photographer on GG III, Wes Eckerman took the photograph above of a homopteran bug on a bush near the Omali pool. Our entomologists have not been able to identify it beyond the Family Scutellaridae! It is highly likely that an enormous number of the islands’ insects remain to be discovered and described scientifically.

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Common waxbill, Estrilda astrild [Weckerphoto, GG III]

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Blue-cheeked cordon-bleu, Uraeginthus cyanocephala [Weckerphoto GG III]

Bird life around the pool is plentiful and entertaining. The most commonly seen birds in the Omali bushes are various finches and waxbills that are of African origin and possibly brought over from the mainland as pets by the Portuguese colonials (above). But the real specialty is the São Tomé Prinia. Prinias are Old World insectivorous warblers; there are about 30 species divided between Africa and Asia. Prinia molleri is the only member of this group in the islands and it is found only on São Tomé, from downtown all the way to the top of Pico at 2,000 meters. As common and seemingly fearless as this endemic little bird is, it is extremely difficult to photograph. It just won’t hold still.

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Prinia molleri on Omali window sill [Weckerphoto GG III]

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Prinia molleri [Weckerphoto, GG III]

Finally, lying around the Omali pool it is impossible not to notice the noisy action up at the top of the palm trees. Part of the year the palm fronds seem to be inhabited mostly by vitelline masked weavers. Even when they are not around their distinctive nests from the year before are obvious.

weaver_vitelline_masked_soitorgoss_daudi_2007_03_19_2b1

Vitelline masked weaver [Tanzaniabirds phot]

These weavers are native but not unique to the islands although some ornithologists recognize them as a distinct race (or subspecies, Ploceus velatus peixotoi) indicating that they may have been isolated from the mainland long enough to be recognizably different from the mainland species. These weavers are not found on Prìncipe. All who know them would agree that weavers are a noisy group in general.

When we are working on the islands, usually March-May, the weavers are rather scarce and instead, their place in the palm trees seems to be taken up with the large island fruit bat, Eidolon helvum. These large bats are common on the African mainland where they are migratory; the São Tomé populations are thought to be the same species but do not migrate. They are eaten by many local people.

bat-eidolon-helvum1

Eidolon helvum [RCD, GG V]

An hour or so at the Omali pool at the right time of year is enough to learn that Eidolon is a very noisy animal as well. They seem to argue and fuss all day when they should be sleeping; the sight of the entire group flying off to feed at dusk is unforgettable.

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Fruit bats taking off at sunset. [V. Schnoll, GG V]

Bats are a group much in need of genetic study. There are a number of endemic species recognized by anatomical characters, but in most cases their true species status has not been tested molecularly as we have done with the Sao Tome shrew (see earlier blogs). The expert on the bats of these islands is my colleague Dr. Javier Juste of the Doñana Institute in Seville, Spain. In an earlier blog I reported that Dr. Juste was involved in the description of a new pipistrelle bat from Prìncipe – this is not yet published and is based in part on genetics. During the past few weeks, I have sent Javier some images of bats we have taken during past expeditions, and he has kindly tried to identify them for us.

bats-nova-cuba

Principe bats at Nova Cuba [Weckerphoto, GG III]

This is a group of bats we found at the old plantation of Nova Cuba, on Prìncipe. Currently recognized as Hipposideros ruber guineensis, they are thought to be a race of the red bat common on São Tomé but it would not surprise me if further analysis might prove them to be a distinct species.

hipposideros-ruber-guineaeensis

Hipposideros ruber guineensis. [Weckerphoto, GG III]

The photo below was taken by Wes during the day, on the ridge above Lagoa Amelia at about 1400 meters on São Tomé. Javier thinks it might be the endemic Hipposideros thomensis.

h-thomensis-lagoa-amelia

Hipposideros thomensis, Lagoa Amelia [Weckerphoto, GG III]

A final note on spiders; two previous blogs this year have dealt with spiders we have found in gardens, one of which turned out to be an endemic species. A few days ago, my colleague Angus Gascoigne of the Instituto Superior Politecnico sent me several photos of the spider below:

argiope1

Argiope orb weaver [Manuel Morais]

I took the photos in to our spider experts and they got quite excited. It is an orb weaver of a widespread genus but “this one is really different!” I suppose I should not be surprised, and Angus is collecting more as I write.

For all of you who observe them, Happy Holidays!

Here’s the Parting Shot:

parting

The Raison d’Etre.

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 Bonfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes 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, Sheila Farr Nielsen, Corinne W. Abel and Mr. and Mrs. John Sears. Our expeditions can be supported by tax-free donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


October 19, 2011

The Race: New Species, New People and Intriguing Biogeography

Lots of news this time. First, graduate students of the University of California, Santa Cruz and California State University, Monterey Bay teamed up to do a most excellent on-line presentation of our work in the Gulf of Guinea Islands, called Documenting Eden; it includes a slide show and can be found here: http://sciencenotes.ucsc.edu/2011/pages/eden/eden.html
On the biodiversity education front led by Velma Schnoll, we are working on several projects including a coloring book of endemic species, a lesson plan to support our poster project of GG V and possibly an animated cartoon featuring the fabulous yellow caecilian, cobra bobo, as “spokescreature” for the unique species on the  islands.
Some great news is that the Academy has hired three new Curators in Microbiology, Herpetology and Ichthyology.

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Dr. Luiz Rocha, CAS Ichthyology Section.  RCD phot.

Dr. Rocha (above) is a marine ichthyologist and brilliant underwater photographer who has already worked in São Tomé and Príncipe. He was a member of a National Geographic-sponsored marine expedition in 2006 which occurred shortly after our CAS GG II expedition concluded.  The results were published in the journal Zootaxa a year later and included many of the fishes already collected on our first two expeditions by Dr. Tomio Iwamoto and others of us.

I walked into Luiz’ lab a couple of weeks ago just to talk, and found he was just finishing up the description of a new species of parrotfish from Säo Tomé, based on three specimens we collected  on earlier CAS expeditions!

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Sparisoma sp. nov., new São Tomé parrotfish. L. Rocha phot

The holotype specimen (the single “name bearer”) was collected by Dr. Tomio Iwamoto in 2006 (GG II) by hook and line from Ned Seligman’s pier on Praia Francesa.   Readers of this blog will remember that Ned is the head of an island NGO called STeP UP through which we have worked since the beginning in 2000; he is also a life-long friend of mine.

praia-francesa

Chez Ned (l) and the author (r),  Praia Francesa  T. Daniel phot. GG IV

The additional specimens (paratypes) include another collected directly from a beach seine by Tomio and I in 2001(GG I), and one purchased from the town fish market by Dr. John McCosker and David Catania in 2009 (GG IIIB).   It is very exciting to have a bright new colleague here at the Academy who is interested in the Gulf of Guinea; the manuscript is in review and as always, we will send the published article to the islands.

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Jim Shevock, Laguna Azul.  RCD phot GG IV

Meanwhile, our tireless moss guru, Jim Shevock, and colleagues from Dresden and Hungary have published another paper on the GG IV bryophyte collections; we have already sent the paper to the islands.  As a result of Jim’s GG IV work, the authors report 18 species of liverworts and hornworts  (moss relatives) as new for the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe overall.  With respect to the two islands, 13 new species records have been found new to Príncipe and 16 new for São Tomé.  None of these species is new to science, but the country list for liverworts and hornworts is now 147 species, a much greater diversity than was known.

My lab has been quite active all summer.  Eden Maloney returned from UCLA to further refine the genetic component of her work on the endemic São Tomé shrew, Crocidura thomensis; this research includes the ecological work by our colleague Ricardo Lima, a doctoral student at  Lancaster University and genetic work by Dr. Brian Simison, Director of our Center for Comparative Genomics.

Much of our recent focus in the lab has been on the endemic, Greeff’s  giant gecko, Hemidactylus greeffi,  described from São Tomé by the Portuguese biologist Bocage in 1886.

greeffi-culvert

Greeff’s giant gecko (Hemidactylus greeffi), road culvert, Praia Mutamba. D. Lin phot. GG I

This species is unique among the 90+ members of the genus Hemidactylus,  in that it lacks the claw and the actual terminal bone (phalanx) of the thumb.

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Bom Bom, Principe Weckerphoto -  GG IV

Evolutionary loss of the first claw is known from a species in Brazil, H. brasileanus but until now, absence of the underlying terminal phalanx has been thought to be unique to Greeff’s giant gecko.

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Hemidactylus brasileanus phot: animaldiversity, U. Michigan

H. greeffi was thought to inhabit both São Tomé and Príncipe islands but in 2005, our colleague, José Jesus of the University of Madeira and his co-workers compared the genetics of samples from both islands and found significant differences in mitochondrial DNA sequence between them.  However, they did not find any differences in the nuclear genes they examined and thus deferred describing the Príncipe individuals as new.

In June, I tasked my Summer Systematics Intern, Elizabeth Miller of UC San Diego, with doing a detailed anatomical examination of our collections of the geckos from both islands, along with a molecular study of the two populations using the data kindly sent to us from Dr. Jesus but also employing new, faster-evolving nuclear genes.

Long before the genetic analysis was completed, Elizabeth found obvious and consistent morphological differences between the two populations.   In fact, these differences are so striking that I think if anyone had ever done careful comparison of the bodies of the two sets of geckos, the Príncipe population would have been described as a separate species long ago, DNA evidence notwithstanding.

gecko-comparison

left, Sao Tome, D. Lin phot- GGI;  right, Principe, Weckerphoto GG III

Among the many character differences she found was in iris color!  H. greeffi of São Tomé has beautiful light, moss-green eyes, while in the Príncipe population, the eyes range from gold to light copper.  This would seem to be an obvious, readily recognizable difference, but it must be remembered that except for Dr. Jesus and his colleagues, all previous scientists who have studied these geckos have been dealing with preserved specimens, in which eye color is invariably lost—in fact much body pigmentation is lost in museum preservatives .

Subsequent DNA sequence data generated by Elizabeth in our Center for Comparative Genomics confirmed that José Jesus and his colleagues were correct; the Príncipe populations do indeed represent a separate, undescribed species.  At the same time, however, they share with H. greeffi of São Tomé the absence of the terminal phalanx of the thumb; this strongly suggests that H. greeffi and H. sp. nov. are each other’s closest relatives (but more on this below).

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Miller (back left) presenting our results to the Summer Systematics Institute, August 2011 RCD phot

Currently Elizabeth and I, along with Anna Sellas of our CCG molecular lab are completing a formal description of the new gecko from Príncipe.  The two gecko species, along with their purported nearest relatives present quite an interesting biogeographical question, now being addressed by my graduate student, Dashiell Harwood.  At first glance, our molecular results suggest that the ancestor of both H. greeffi and the new Príncipe species colonized São Tomé first, then later made it across to Príncipe but we have a number of reasons for doubting this scenario.   Part of Harwood’s project will be to employ Elizabeth’s data plus additional genes and deeper analysis in order to answer this initial question.  But if we can obtain appropriate samples, there is a much broader gecko issue we can study.

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cladogram from Bauer et al. (2010) Mol. Phylo. Ev. 57

Above is a small subset of a much larger cladogram of Hemidactylus species done by our colleague Dr. Aaron Bauer of Villanova University and his co-workers.  The highlighted box indicates H. greeffi and its closest known relatives, H. longicephalus of the African mainland (also São Tomé) and H. brasileanus of South America.  The species examined in Bauer’s study did not include samples of our new gecko from Príncipe Island.

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African-Atlantic partial distribution.

The image above is a visual perspective of the rough distributions of four species of Hemidactylus, including Príncipe.  If the cladogram is a true reflection of the relationships of three of the four species here, and if the Príncipe gecko is indeed, H. greeffi’s closest relative and fits in as we surmise, then the common ancestor of all four species must have crossed the Atlantic, from the African continent to northern South America.   This is not a new idea and was proposed by Carranza and Arnold in 2006, who stated that during the last 15 million years, African lineages have crossed the Atlantic by random (natural) dispersal at least twice.  The likelihood of this long-range dispersal is strengthened by a look at the dominant Atlantic currents.  Readers of the blog will recognize the South Equatorial Current as the same one we invoke as providing a “freshwater pathway” for rafting from the Congo and Niger Rivers on the mainland, straight through the Gulf of Guinea archipelago (see Oct and Nov, 2008 blogs and Measey, et. al (2007) Journal of Biogeography 34.)

atlantic_ocean_currents

Major Atlantic Ocean Currents

In the Carranza and Arnold paper, H. longicephalus and three additional Brazilian species were employed, as was “H. greeffi”; however, the tissues we sent the authors were from Príncipe, before we knew the two island populations were distinct.  So Harwood’s graduate work should shed some light not only on the relationships between these geckos, but their geographic origins and history.

Here’s the Parting shot:

sunset-rwSunset on Bom Bom Island, R. Wenk 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, (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”.


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
g-thomasinsula

g-t

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.

type-material

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:

the-love-of-teachers

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”.


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