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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

May 3, 2013

The Race: GG VII—We Reunite and Part Again

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

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

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

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Jim on the “trail” to the mesa.

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

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Tom discovers Principina, a unique sedge.

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Miko on top of the mesa

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

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

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

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Tom carrying specimens upriver.

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

 

Here is the parting shot.

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All images by Andrew Stanbridge

PARTNERS:

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

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


February 23, 2013

The Race: Endemicity and Gulf of Guinea Expedition VII (I. the Scientists)

Readers may recall that last March, prior to GG VI, I gave several lectures in Portugal on Gulf of Guinea island biodiversity. The last was an international colloquium on São Tomé and Príncipe held at the University in Lisbon. There I met a number of the participants, among whom were old friends and a delightful entomologist named Dr. Luis Mendes; Luis and I remained in contact, and he has just published and sent me the most up-to date survey of the butterfly fauna of the islands butterfly fauna.

BUTTERFLIES

Photo by Luis Mendes

As we have learned to expect, the endemicity (uniqueness) level is high. Luis and his colleague, Bivar de Sousa, report 111 species present on both islands, 29 of which are found nowhere else in the world. Thus, fully a quarter of the butterflies (26%) are endemics. This is further testimony to the great age of these islands, as we know that genetic change (evolution) occurs with isolation and time. Last month, another paper appeared by Loureiro and Pontes confirming the endemic status of a species of dragonfly, Trithemis nigra found only on Príncipe but not seen for many years.

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Photo of Trithemis nigra byNuno Loureiro

The image below is a summation of our current knowledge of  some of the insect endemicity on the two islands; much of the data upon which this summation is based are very old, and so much more work needs to be done.

INSECTS

photo: www images:  CAS construct.

We are getting ready for GG VII (April-May), and below is our new logo for the expedition; note that the famous Cobra bobo, a legless amphibian found only on São Tomé has been joined by an endemic Príncipe snake, also called Cobra bobo but entirely unrelated. (The cartoons of both animals were made by my graduate student, Dashiell Harwood, and the layout was by a member of our Biodiversity Education Team, Michael Murakami.

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GG VII (2013) logo.

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James Shevock of CAS; photo A. Stanbridge- GG VI

Jim Shevock, a world-class bryologist, will be joining us for the third time. As you can see from the data above, he has already greatly increased our knowledge of mosses and their relatives on the islands, and there are still many species to be found. For example, during GG VI last year, Jim returned to the same locality along the Rio Papagaio in Príncipe that he had collected during GG V; in GG VI and found many plants he did not find the first time, including 10 of them new to the country! Jim has worked a lot in Asia and his nickname on Taiwan is “Little Bear.”

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Rayna Bell at Caxuiera, Sao Tome. A.  Stanbridge phot – GG VI

Rayna Bell is a graduate student from Cornell University. During GG VI she studied possible hybridization between the two endemic São Tomé treefrog species Hyperolius thomensis and H. molleri and currently has a paper in press on her work with us last year. This year we will try to find the elusive tadpole (larva) of the Príncipe giant treefrog which remains undescribed. Leptopelis palmatus is the largest treefrog in Africa.  Speaking of herpetology, to date our CAS island specimens and tissues have been used in 33 scientific publications, internationally!

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Dr. Tom Daniel, Lagoa Amelia, Sao Tome.  RCD phot, GG III

Dr. Tom Daniel is a veteran of GG III and GG IV. Our senior botanist, he is a specialist on the flower family Acanthaceae (shrimp plants); in the picture above, he is standing in Lagoa Amelia next to Heteradelphia, a genus we think is endemic to São Tomé. He has done a lot of work on ferns and other Gulf of Guinea plant groups as well.

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Dr. Tamas Szuts with some of his critters – Tszuts photos

Dr. Tamas Szuts is an expert on jumping spiders of the family Salticidae. He was a post-doctoral fellow here at the Academy under Dr. Charles Griswold (GG I) and will be joining the team for the first time. He is now on the faculty of the University of West Hungary. Salticids are about the only spider  group I think are kind of cute, face to face!

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Miko Nadel, Sao Tome.  A. Stanbridge photo. GG VI

Miko Nadel is a graduate student at San Francisco State University under Prof. Dennis Desjardin (GG II, GG III). After making a comprehensive lichen collection during GG VI, he has decided to focus his research on the lichen genus Usnea; these are the hanging, pendulous lichens known in the US as “old man’s beard.”

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Andrew Stanbridge at Laguna Azul, Sao Tome.  A. Stanbridge photo. GG VI

We will once again be documented by the world’s largest photographer, Andrew Stanbridge, veteran of GG V and GG VI. Andrew was one of those who ascended the Pico do São Tomé last year (see last April blog). His obvious photographic skills are only part of what he brings to our expeditions.

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Dr. Bob Drewes with Regional President of Principe, Hon. Jose Cassandra.  A. Stanbridge phot.  GG VII

I will be leading the trip as usual and will attempt to answer the ongoing question: do I have to wear a tie to see President Jose, or do I not have to wear a tie? .. Never quite seem to get it right.

The second part of the blog will be focused on the education team and our plans for Gulf of Guinea VII

Here’s the Parting Shot:

incredible Principe

Incredible Principe Island. A. Stanbridge phot. GG VI

PARTNERS

We are most grateful to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for their continuing authorization to collect and export specimens for study, and to Ned Seligman, Roberta dos Santos and Quintino Quade of STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, our “home away from home”.

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


August 22, 2012

The Race: Why We Collect Specimens.

Summer has been extremely busy.   Our irrepressible bryologist, Jim Shevock, comes into my lab almost weekly with new moss discoveries from GG VI.  He says a new paper on Fissidens (the largest moss genus on Sâo Tomé and Príncipe) is almost finished and will be submitted for publication as soon as he and his colleagues (from the US, the Netherlands and Lisbon) complete a key to identification of the species. Recall that Jim nearly doubled the number of collections he made during GG IV… He thought he had seen everything! The mesa on Príncipe will be a primary target for our botanists on GG VII, next year (see below).

Phrynobatrachus leveleve – RCD phot, GG VI

A nice surprise from GG VI was that we finally got some nice, un-posed  photographs of the Sâo Tomé puddle frog, Phrynobatrachus leveleve. Readers may recall that we described this new endemic species back in 2007 following GG II (leve leve means “take it easy” in the local language).  Obviously the way to get good shots of these critters is at night!

Ptychadena newtoni.  A. Stanbridge phot – GG VI

Another good find on a different night was Newton’s rocket frog (Ptychadena newtoni) at a new locality, Caxueira.

The creek at Caxueira.    A. Stanbridge phot. – GG VI

In earlier days I was concerned that this species, endemic to Sâo Tomé, was on the wane due to human development, but it appears to be more widely distributed than we thought (see also Feb 2011 blog). Caxueira is not far from the city center.

Why do we collect plant and animal specimens? Why do we bring them home euthanized and preserved (or in the case of plants, pressed and dried), and why do we organize and store them for posterity?  The easy answer is that we need to find out what they are, to identify them and describe them so we can communicate about them.  We certainly cannot conserve or preserve or even talk about species if we do not know they exist. This is particularly important in the tropics where so many different species have evolved, and especially in areas like Sâo Tomé and Príncipe that have never been fully explored by biologists.  An added note is that for a biologist to know that a species is new and undescribed, he has to know all the related species that it isn’t and then demonstrate it!

It is a fact that a lot of things in the tropics that look alike are not at all related; conversely, some critters that look radically different are, in fact, just variants of the same species.

The botanists of course confront similar questions. Below are two species of the genus Impatiens.

(l) T. Daniel phot – GG IV; (r) M. Nadel phot – GG VI

Both species are high elevation forms described a long time ago: I. manteroana is thought to be endemic to Príncipe, while I. thomensis is known only from Sâo Tomé. But are they really different species? And if so, are they each other’s closest relatives?  We do not yet have material of the former, but this is a question we can answer next year through DNA analysis. The specimen on the right was photographed high on the Príncipe mesa, which is one of the reasons it is a target area for next year.

Below is an island example of two species that look very much alike but are definitely not the same:

D. Lin phots: GG I, GG II]

These are photographs of small leaf-litter skinks of the genus Afroablepharus. The specimen above was collected on Sâo Tomé during GG I and the one below came from Príncipe (GG II).  While they look identical, they are actually two different species as shown by colleagues of ours who were working on the molecular level: extracting DNA from small bits of tissue (probably tail tips) the two species were shown to be genetically quite different.  The one from Príncipe was described over 160 years ago (A. africanus), while the one above, from Sâo Tomé, remains unnamed. This is most frustrating as even though we know they are separate species, we cannot describe the new species yet because the Sâo Tomé animals from which the DNA was analyzed were not collected.  It is a complicated situation that both groups of workers together are trying to resolve at this time.

Another example can be found in the island geckos about which I have written before.

From public presentation by E Miller. CAS Big Kahuna phot (same specimens from above and below).

For over one hundred years, the geckos from both islands that lack thumb nails were considered to be the same species, Hemidactylus greeffi, originally described from Sao Tome.  Our same colleagues noted that the two were genetically different but again failed to take whole samples and so could not describe the Príncipe species as new.  It was not until we closely examined specimens in our Academy collections from both islands that we found many morphological differences between the two, which strongly supported the genetic evidence of our colleagues.  The animal on the right is now  known as Hemidactylus principensis, yet another island endemic. As luck would have it, the paper was published while we were on Principe!

The smaller specimen on the right in both views is also what is known as the holotype; i.e., it is the single animal that is described in minute detail that becomes the “name bearer”.  All geckos collected from the islands and identified as H. principensis will be based on the description of this particular specimen; holotypes are the most important specimens in any collection.

In our collection, which is probably the fifth largest in the world, all holotypes are housed separately and identified by a blue ribbon.

Part of Herpetology collections rooms; holotypes above right, paratypes below right. RCD phots.

Another question often asked of museum scientists is “why do you have to collect so many?”  The answer is that species vary; no two members of the same vertebrate species are identical.  This is why we include additional specimens in a species description.  While the holotype or “name bearer” is usually a single animal in a standard description, other members of the same purported species, hopefully from the same place, are also described in some detail in order to account for individual variation.  These are usually designated as paratypes; in the Academy collections, they are always designated by red ribbons [above] and are the second-most important.

Yet another frequently asked question is, “do you have to kill the specimens?”  The answer lies in the fact that not all characters (similarities and differences) are observable from the outside.  With animal groups like frogs, one has to look deeper, and this is impossible with living specimens. Below is a collage of some of the sorts of characters I had to examine in determining the relationships between members of African tree frogs of the family Hyperoliidae— found in Africa, the Seychelles and Madagascar.

All RCD phots.

Notice that the x-ray in the lower right hand corner revealed to us that the two geckos mentioned above not only lack thumb nails, they lack the entire terminal bone of the thumb! (the new species, Hemidactylus principensis, is on the left). So far as we know, they are the only two members of the genus Hemidactylus, (90+ species) that exhibit this characteristic.  This might suggest they are each other’s closest relatives, but we are in the process of determining that by further DNA analysis that includes other closely related species.

During GG VI we did another kind of collecting:

Rayna Bell, Cornell University. A. Stanbridge phot – GG VI

Notice that in her left hand, Rayna Bell is holding an adult Sao Tome giant treefrog (Hyperolius thomensis), while in her right she has a cotton swab.  She swabbed the skin of each frog she collected a number of times in a number of places in order to detect the presence of chytrid fungus. The swab will also detect the actual infection load if the fungus is present.  This is the first attempt at detecting the fungus on the islands of Sâo Tomé and Príncipe, and we do not yet have results. It is certainly present in other areas of Africa. Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis (Bd for short) is a fungus that has been implicated in the mass die-off of populations of frogs in many parts of the world.  Frog skin is a living membrane through which gasses and water can freely pass; while the mechanism is not well-known, the fungus seems to totally disrupt these functions causing the demise of the infected frog.

Cross section of Bd infected frog skin.  (A) are sporangia with zoospores visible. (B) tube through which zoospores are released to the environment. Phot courtesy of A. Pessier, U. Illinois

Another real value to collections is the fact that past history can be discovered through our specimens. It turns out that Bd can also be detected by swabbing alcohol preserved specimens regardless of age, although the resulting data are not quite so informative as samples from living material.  Below is Dr. Dave Blackburn’s “chytrid crew” (mostly undergrad and graduate students) swabbing specimens collected from the Impenetrable Forest of Uganda many years ago.  Dave is our new curator in herpetology and a real expert on Bd.

Dave Blackburn’s “chytrid crew”.  D. Blackburn phot.

Every trip to these small amazing islands yields new discoveries. We are planning our next expedition for 2013 and excited at the prospect of the new stuff we will find.

Here’s the parting shot.

Autonomy Day in Principe, 2012 A. Stanbridge phot, GG VI

PARTNERS

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

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


April 8, 2012

The Race: Gulf of Guinea VI, First week

Having completed my lectures at CIBIO near Porto, and in the symposium on Sao Tome and Principe in Lisbon, I hooked up with Drs Tomio Iwamoto, Brian Simison, and James Shevock, Miko Nadel and our outstanding photographer, Andrew Stanbridge in the Lisbon airport whereupon we paid gobs of money in overweight charges to TAP airlines (coloring books). The first six of us arrived at the Omali and have been working in various sites for a week until we were joined by Rayna Bell on the Friday morning flight. Rayna is the Cornell grad student who is looking at some interesting genetic problems with the treefrogs here. Early on I paid visits to Arlindo Carvalho, Director General of the Ministry of the Environment and Victor Bonfim, Director of Conservation to pay our respects and request our authorizations.

All of the photos below are by Andrew Stanbridge.

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The first six of us; lunch at Angolares, southeast Sao Tome

So far, we have found no limpets! Small barnacles, yes; marine mollusks, yes; but no true limpets. Brian is pretty much sampling everything but his specialty critters do not seem to be here. Whether or not there is some chemical feature of the volcanic rock that renders the rocks uninhabitable remains a question. Perhaps Principe will be different.

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Brian Simison (right) searching rocks on Sao Tome west coast.

Jim Shevock has already found two bryophyte families new to the islands, both on the Macambrara road at about 1100 meters. This is Jim’s second trip; in GG IV, he made some 800 collections, so this is stuff we missed.

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Jim reaching for hanging bryophytes on the Rio Abade

Miko Nadel, our grad student from San Francisco State, is conducting what we think is the first lichen survey ever of these oceanic islands- so everything is kind of new.

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Miko with captured lichen; on the road to Sao Nicolau.

Tomio Iwamoto, veteran of GG I and II is working closely with the Department of Fisheries and an NGO called MARAPA to produce a guide primarily for the local fishermen.

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Tomio inspects catches near Agua Ize

Yesterday, after Rayna’s arrival, we went up to inspect the large Olea tree which is our one locality for the unique Hyperolius thomensis. Like last year, we found no adults but there were old egg masses in both tree holes, and definitely tadpoles in one of them. The rains are upon us, and we are hoping that during the next couple of weeks the other smaller green species will appear. We are being assisted by old friends and a new one, a young Portuguese graduate named Joao Pedro Pio who works with Mariana Carvalho on the endemic maroon pigeon. I think Rayna and I, Pedro and a local guy from Nova Moca will go up at night to Lagoa Amelia (nearly 1500 meters) to try to collect Hyperolius molleri.

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Andrew Stanbridge continues to take brilliant pictures. He is much more of an asset to us than just his fabulous shots.

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Andrew with Bode, famed resident of the remote Bombaim. Bode sings the Portuguese national anthem in a truly appalling voice and sells cobra skins. (photo: Brian Simison)

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Me, bargaining for a side-necked turtle (Pelusios castaneus) at Ribeira Afonso

Tuesday, the two botanists and Andrew will go up to the top of the Pico, an area we have never collected. We are being taken there by our friends from Tropic Ventures, Andre, Hugo and Maneh. At the same time, Rayna and I will go out to Rolas Island to look for caecilians. They were collected on the island many years ago and we wish to add them to our genetic map of this unique species.

Here’s the parting shot.

parting-shotImagine thousands of hectares of oil palm between this boy and Cao Grande. It is happening.

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 collectexport 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, and Sheila Farr Nielsen; GG VI supporters include The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abell, John and Judy Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke. Logistics and lodging for GG VI (Omali Lodge and Bom Bom Island) were kindly provided by HBD.

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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