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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

July 31, 2008

THE RACE: How Little We Know About Lions!! (antlions, that is)

A recurrent theme in our work in the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe is the continuous reminder of how little we and the 160,000 citizens of these fragile little islands know about the unique biology found here.  I have already told you that when we first arrived, there were but four species of mushrooms listed from São Tomé and none from Príncipe; we now have at least 180, and the first ever recorded from Príncipe (75), the older of the two islands. Many of these are species new to science and are being described for the first time; this is a huge jump in the island biodiversity list and there is much more to come. 

During our first expedition in 2001 (GG I), we were interviewed twice by the local television station in São Tomé.  In the second interview two weeks after our arrival, I had the whole gang prepared to show some of the specimens we had collected.  When we showed him the scorpions, the reporter, Gui Gui, went nuts!  Neither he nor any other citizen we have spoken to since, has ever seen nor heard of a scorpion.  And yet they are quite common at night (along with numerous geckos and crabs) on the basalt cliffs of the northwestern shore of the island near Laguna Azul.

Isometrus, widespread tropical. Sao Tome (D. Lin phot) GG I

Basalt Cliffs near Laguna Azul, Sao Tome.  GG I  (J.Ledyard phot)

Jens Vindum confronts crab on basalt cliffs. Sao Tome.  GG I (RCD phot)

   I am told that if the new hotel project at Laguna Azul becomes a reality, the coastal area will become inaccessible to local traffic, and the road will be re-routed higher, some 3 km through the dry, north end of the island from Laguna Azul to Neves.   What we call “Shipwreck Cove” (Praia Mutamba), one of our favorite study sites and the location of some remnant dry forest will become the marina for the new hotel.  

Praia Mutamba, Sao Tome. note basalt cliffs in background. GG III (weckerphoto)

Dr. Tomio Iwamoto negotiates old dry forest. Praia Mutambo, Sao Tome GG I (RCD phot)

 Yet another example of how little we know about these islands can be found in the insect order Neuroptera.  Neuropterans are world-wide and include the lacewings, mantis flies and antlions.  As kids, we western North Americans know antlion larvae as “doodlebugs”, the little critters that form funnels in the ground. One of the world’s leading experts on the Neuroptera is the Academy’s Dr. Norm Penny,who was with us on both GG I in 2001 and GG II in 2006. 


Dr. Norm Penny with a malaise trap, Principe. GG II (D. Lin phot)

 Prior to GG I, there were only four species of neuropterans known from São Tomé and Príncipe from as many specimens. All were lacewings; antlions had never been recorded from either island.  At the end of GG I, Norm had about 370 specimens, representing 14 species in three families! 

Apochrysa  leptalea  Sao Tome. GG I (D. Lin phot)

Borniochrysa squamosa Sao Tome.  GG I (D. Lin phot)

Ceratochrysa sp.  Sao Tome. GG I (D. Lin phot)

Glenochrysa sp. Sao Tome. GG I (D. Lin phot)

The distribution of these critters throughout the Gulf of Guinea archipelago refelects an old island biogeographic principe: the number of species supportable on an oceanic island can be predicted by the island area and its distance from the mainland.  As you can see below, island area seems more important in this case. One might predict that because Príncipe is closer to the mainland, it should support more species than São Tomé. But, put simply, the larger, more variable an island’s topography, the greater number of niches (read “jobs”) are available to be filled by colonizers.


As I mentioned above, antlions (Myrmeleon) are close relatives of lacewings and had not been recorded on either island prior to GG I.  Antlion larvae dig funnel-shaped pits and hide at the bottom, partially buried in sand and waiting for an unsuspecting ant or other arthropod to slide into the pit, whereupon the larva or “doodlebug” kills and eats it. We first noticed these pits across the road from where we were staying in São Tomé in 2001. 

Antlion (doodlebug) pits. Sao Tome GG I (D. Lin phot)

antlion larva (doodlebug) exposed (J. Robinson phot)

A doodlebug lies in wait at the bottom of his pit. (WWW phot) 

Now, the curious thing is that one does not have to capture the winged adults in order to study antlions.  It turns out that the larvae are very hardy, and you only need to winkle them out of the pits, put them in a small vial of sand, and they become quiescent, surviving for long periods of time.  Norm can then raise them to adulthood later in his doodlebug lab.  


Dr. Penny in his antlion lab (note cups) (RCD phot.)


First adult Sao Tome antlion raised in lab. New record for Sao Tome. (D. Lin phot)

Norm puts the newly arrived larvae in styrfoam cups, they revive, feed on tiny crickets he provides, and then pupate. He then covers the cup, because, obviously, the adult will be winged.  We have been quite excited because we brought back the first ever Príncipe antlion larvae and one pupated in Dr. Penny’s lab.  


First Principe antlion locality. Bombom Island. GG III (weckerphoto)

Note the doodlebug has pupated.  (RCD phot)

The hatching! Note hole in the old pupa ball.  (RCD photo)

First Principe antlion hatched in our lab and a new record for Principe (RCD phot)

Very exciting.  Norm says both are species of Myrmeleon but whether they are the same species or different species has yet to be determined… This baseline work we do takes time.  But again, our job is to discover, analyze (understand) and describe.  We cannot preserve what we do not know.  


Dr. Norm Penny on Praia Agulhas, Principe. GG I (RCD phot)

Here is our usual “parting shot”: 

The “race” on Sao Tome



We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Research Investment Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/ and especially the generosity of three private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom and Timothy M. Muller, for making GG III possible.


Filed under: Gulf of Guinea — bob @ 9:15 am

July 11, 2008

Island Biodiversity Race


My name is Bob Drewes; I am a research biologist, and I have worked in Africa’s wild places with considerable pleasure for over 35 years. I am Curator of Herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences, the western United States’ oldest academic research institution.

Very shortly, I will be leading the Academy’s third biodiversity expedition to the remote islands of São Tomé and Príncipe which lie off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea,. These two mountainous islands together form the world’s second smallest republic (after the Seychelles Islands). São Tomé and Príncipe are biologically unique; they are the two middle members of a four-island chain (sometimes known as the Gulf of Guinea Islands) that is the only archipelago on earth comprised of both continental and oceanic islands. [island map]

island map

Continental and Oceanic Islands 

Unlike the northernmost island, Bioko (formerly Fernando Pó) which is a continental island separated from the Cameroon coast by only 20 miles of relatively shallow water, São Tomé and Príncipe arose some 2 to 4000m up from the ocean floor and thus have never been attached to mainland Africa; this means that the ancestors of all the plants and animals that are found on the islands today must have crossed hundreds of km of deep salt water to get there (dispersal) – this only occurs over time and is successful only by random chance. The colonizers that make it and survive are then separated from their mainland founder populations and over time begin to accumulate genetic changes, a process we all know as evolution.


Sao Tome Id at 1400m. GG II (D. Lin phot).

In the case of São Tomė and Príncipe, there’s been plenty of time for this to occur as São Tomé and Príncipe are very old islands. It is fact that the Hawaiian Islands and the Galapagos are only about 5 million years at the oldest; compared with the Gulf of Guinea islands, these two famous and well-studied archipelagos are relative infants! Solid geological evidence tells us that São Tomé is at least 15 million years old, and Principe is more than twice that, at over 30 million years. This is a very long time for successful dispersal, long-term isolation and evolution to take place, and it has — in spades! The evidence can be found in the high numbers of endemic plant and animal species that still inhabit the higher elevations on the two islands – species that are found nowhere else in the world.


Sao Tome endemic. Newton’s sunbird.  GG II (J. Uyeda phot)


View Southeast from 1400 m, Sao Tome.  GG I (RCD phot)


Fruit bat. Sao Tome.  GG I (D. Lin phot)

Among the vertebrates, more than half of the 49 species and subspecies of land birds breeding on São Tomė and Príncipe are endemic, and they include the world’s largest sunbird, the world’s largest weaver and the world’s smallest ibis. Mammals make poor over-water dispersers (high metabolic rates) so as we would predict, endemic mammals are limited to a couple of bats and two shrews that have not been well studied. There are no endemic freshwater fish on the islands, but our first two expeditions yielded many more species in the rivers and streams than previously recorded. About half of the reptile species on the islands are unique to them; one of them is the largest lizard in its genus, Greef’s gecko (Hemidactylus greeffi). But most surprising of all is the presence of an amphibian fauna, especially because due to the nature of their permeable skin, amphibians almost never cross saltwater barriers; they are considered among the poorest dispersers, along with freshwater fish. Not only are six unique frog species present (we just described a new one), there is also a legless amphibian known as a caecilian that is found only on São Tomė; its nearest relative is found only in East Africa, thousands of miles away.


Sao Tome endemic caecilian, Schistometopum thomense GG I (D. Lin phot)


Principe endemic giant treefrog, Leptopelis palmatus GG I (D. Lin phot)

The invertebrate species and flora are also remarkable; so far as is known, about 14% of the flowering plants are endemic, including the world’s largest Begonia at 2 meters ! More than half of the ladybugs and spiders, 80% of the stag beetles and 2/3rds of the terrestrial snails are found nowhere else in the world; but these data are based on very limited sampling much of which was done in the late 19th Century, this is one of the reasons we are here. [Begonia ebaccata]. [bubba]


Sao Tome endemic, Begonia bacatta. world’s largest GG I (D. Lin Phot)


J. Ledford with Hysterocrates, Sao Tome endemic tarantula GG I (D. Lin phot)



We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Research Investment Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/ and especially the generosity of three private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom and Timothy M. Muller, for making GG III possible.


Filed under: Gulf of Guinea — bob @ 10:21 am

What Are We Doing?

What We Are Doing.

Surprisingly, São Tomė and Príncipe have remained largely unstudied since the early 19th Century work of Portuguese biologists Fea, Greef and Newton. In spite of the wonderful but preliminary stuff discovered by these early biologists, São Tomė and Príncipe have remained “off the scientific beaten path”. Historically, the islands were used as major slave entrepots by the Portuguese and were of world importance in the production of sugar, coffee and then cacao. Lying 200 to 250 km off the coast of West African coast, the islands have always been rather remote, and even to this day, there is but one flight per week from Europe to São Tomė (via Lisbon) and only a couple from Libreville, Gabon. In spite of several hundred years of agricultural efforts, fairly large amounts of original forest remain in higher elevations that were simply too steep to be cultivated by the colonials. While the birds have been studied and a preliminary flora has been published, huge portions of the biodiversity of these unique islands remain completely unknown.


Drs Iwamoto and Drewes sampling fish. Principe GG I (D. Lin phot)


Periopthalmus, a giant mudskipper.   Principe GG I (D. Lin phot)

So what we are doing is the most basic work in science; we are hiking into these remaining natural areas and surveying them to find out what species live there, what their evolutionary relationships are and where they came from. Depending upon our different specialties, we work both by day and by night, collecting, sampling, photographing, recording, etc. Most of our material is brought back to the California Academy of Sciences for study, but much also goes out to specialists around the world. As systematists, our job is to explore and sample all of the elements of the fauna and flora. When new species are discovered, we must analyze and describe them. Systematics is the fundamental discipline upon which all other biological work depends, especially including conservation efforts. You cannot save what you do not know.


R. Stoelting hunting snakes at night. Sao Tome. GG I (RCD phot)


Endemic giant gecko, Hemidactylus greefi. Principe GG II (D. Lin phot)



Exclusive Economic Zone – Republic of Sao Tome and Principe
As the title “Island Biodiversity Race” implies, there is a significant element of urgency in our work. The islands of the are about to undergo profound change, and the reason is oil. The exclusive economic zone of the Republic includes areas in the Gulf of Guinea where oil has been discovered. This means that at the very least, there will be a huge influx of revenue into this tiny republic of less than 300,000 people, and along with this revenue will come enormous pressure to expand infrastructure and a consequent burgeoning of the human population. History repeatedly shows us that such a phenomenon almost always affects natural wild areas negatively. Thus, It is our purpose to learn as much about the flora and fauna of the islands as quickly as we can, before the changes come. We hope to demonstrate to the citizens of the Republic of São Tomė and Príncipe the unique biological nature of their islands and enable them to make informed decisions down the road. We hope to show what they, and for(and for that matter, the rest of the world) stand to lose without adequate stewardship.


Kids at Santa Catarina, Sao Tome. GG II (D. Lin phot)


Sao Tome.  GG II (D. Lin phot.)

In this blog, I will describe the Third California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Expedition (GGIII) as it unfolds. Each expedition is made up of scientists chosen because their specialties are poorly known on the islands. The following URL describes our goals, the participants in the first two expeditions, and our scientific progress since the first expedition in 2001 (GGI).http://research.calacademy.org/research/herpetology/bdrewes/


GGIII gratefully acknowledges the support of the Research Investment Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/ for continuing support since 2001, and the generosity of three private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry Ohrstrom and Timothy M. Muller.

Filed under: Gulf of Guinea — bob @ 10:20 am

The Race Goes on: May Day Mushroom Madness

Hello, folks. The blog is now up, thanks to the gang at WildlifeDirect. These postings will be somewhat retrospective as the first team has been on the islands for nearly three weeks already. Also, internet connections are very slow here (Principe, at the moment), but I will do my best. I notice we already have a response on the forum from a woman named Theresa, but I will have to learn how to respond later.

Perry, Wenk, Desjardin, Eckerman, me and Daniel Principe GG III (local phot)

Forest at Macambrara, Sao Tome. 1100 M. GG III (Weckerphoto)
Six of us arrived about three weeks ago, we were joined last week by a 7th and here’s what some of us have been up to:

As leader of the GG expeditions I have been very excited to have our first botanists join an expedition: Dr. Tom Daniel, and his graduate student, Rebecca Wenck from CAS. Also particularly important to our goals has been the return to the islands of a mycologist (or in this case, two of them): Drs. Dennis Desjardin and post-doctoral fellow Brian Perry of San Francisco State University. I try to recruit scientists who study plant or animal groups that are poorly known in the Gulf of Guinea, and herein lies a story:

Cookeina speciosa

At the time of our second expedition (GG II) in 2006, there were only four species of mushrooms known from the Island of Sao Tome, and no one had ever explored the smaller, much older Principe for mushrooms (or cugumelos, as they are known here). Dennis Desjardin, a world mushroom authority was kind enough to join us for the first two weeks of GG II. At the end of his two weeks, Dennis had made 98 collections of at least 80 species of perhaps 40 genera of mushrooms, all from Sao Tome!

Cyptotrama asprata

Needless to say, I was delighted to find this unanticipated level of diversity! Now, imagine how I felt two weeks later when, sitting in the steamy internet bar in Sao Tome, I read an email message from Dennis telling me that his luggage (and the mushrooms) had first been lost in Lisbon, and then later misdirected to the US through Newark, NJ instead of San Francisco where our institution is located. In Newark an agricultural/customs officer pulled the specimens out and promptly destroyed them (in spite of the permits, conspicuous labels, etc. on all of the packages). A devastating loss. I told this story in a public lecture a year ago, and thanks to the generosity of three private individuals in the audience, a grant from CAS and support from SCD we are back!

Part of our mission has been to recoup our mushroom losses from Sao Tome and to conduct the first survey of cugumelos on Principe. At time of writing, the whole team has walked up and down mountainous jungle trails from sea level to 1280 meters on Sao Tome, and with logistic support we did not have during GG I (2001) and GG II we have explored every accessible habitat type on Principe, once by boat. Turns out mushrooms grow in a lot of different habitats including not far from the high tide line on beaches.

Leucocoprinus sp.

Favolaschia thwaitesii

Calypella sp.

Dennis and Brian tell me that the overall count of mushroom species so far, including both islands, is 220! We have 75 carefully dried and preserved specimens from Principe alone- this will be the first list ever. The number 220 includes some 30 species collected during GG II but not yet recollected during GG III. Every time I get really excited, Dennis and Brian are quick to say, “ Bob, this is only a snapshot in time! A couple of months from now, there may be a whole different group of cugumelos here.” It is way to early to tell what half of this stuff is, but Brian and Dennis were particularly excited about four mushrooms that were not expected in the Gulf of Guinea at all – these are ectomicorrhyzal (sp?); i. e. they form associations with living plants. Stay tuned.

Dennis Desjardin chasing cugumelos Sao Tome GG III (Weckerphoto)

Brian Perry subdues another ‘shroom. Sao Tome GG III (Weckerphoto)
Our botanists (Tom and Rebecca), and herpetologists (me and Josef Uyeda, who joined us last week) have our own projects as well and Wes Eckerman has been photographing everything we do, every specimen we collect. More anon.

The Administration at work.  Laguna Azul, Sao Tome GG III (Weckerphoto)



We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Research Investment Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/ and especially the generosity of three private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom and Timothy M. Muller, for making GG III possible.


Filed under: Gulf of Guinea — bob @ 10:20 am

The Race Goes on: News from the Flower People

As I mentioned yesterday, the first two botanists to join one our GG expeditions are Dr. Tom Daniels of CAS Botany Department and one of his graduate students, Rebecca Wenk. Both are specialists on a large family of tropical herbs called the Acanthaceae. Can’t give you a common name, sorry.
Dr. Tom and Rebecca among the Lagoa Azul baobabs, Sao Tome

Dr. Tom Daniel and Rebecca Wenk among the Baobabs at Laguna Azul, Sao Tome. GG III (Weckerphoto)
There is already a book on the flora of the islands written by a man named A.W. Exell many years ago but there are still many groups that are poorly known on Sao Tome and Principe, including Tom’s and Rebecca’s acanths, and there is always the possibility of finding something new. Although these data are old, it is estimated that the flowering plants of Sao Tome and Principe are between 8 and 14% endemic, found nowhere else in the world. The numbers are a range because it depends upon which island and plant family you are talking about, but the endemicity is high.
A fly visits one of Tom's Principe acanths
Tom and Rebecca have been working side by side with the cugumelo team but have been pressing and drying their plants at the small herbarium at Bom Sucesso, which is at about 1000 meters on the island of Sao Tome. The herbarium and delightful botanical gardens of Bom Sucesso were first built with support by ECOFAC, but now run by a local NGO called Monte Pico; their specialty is the endemic orchids, and there are guides for tours of the gardens, as well as guides available for hikes up into the “real” primary vegetation above. Our old friend, Bastien Loulomb, has been an advisor to Bom Sucesso and Monte Pico for a long time and has been of consistent help to me on the GG II and GG III expeditions.
a guide, Dennis, Bastien, Bob, Rebecca, Brian, Tom

The gang at Bom Successo with Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico.  GG III (Weckerphoto)
I have always teased my botanical colleagues about the funny hats they wear in the field, and the fact that they never seem to get dirty like us herpetologists. Well, funny hats are a given (see the photo) but Tom and Rebecca get just as dirty as the rest of us. So far they seem to have collected whole samples, tissue for DNA and for karyotyping of all of the known endemics of their group, but have also collected great samples of a lot of other peculiar things, including the world’s largest Begonia, B. ebaccata, which grows to nearly 10 meters on Sao Tome. All duplicates collected by our botanists will reside at Bom Sucesso in the Herbarium.
The worlds largest Begonia, B. ebaccata, endemic to Sao Tome

Largest in the world. Begonia baccata at Laguna Azul, Sao Tome. GG III

Tom on the hunt

Tom at Bom Success. GG III (Weckerphoto)
A high point was when Rebecca finally found an example of her “questing beast,” a tiny little acanth growing along the side of track up Pico Papagaio on Principe. She let out a loud shriek and dove to the ground. I wish I could remember the name of the thing, but Tom and Rebecca are on there way back the US as I write. Apparently, she needed sequence data from this little plant critter in order to “root the tree” of her current MSc thesis (the scientists among you will understand). Here’s a photo of her with her discovery.
Rebecca finds her critter!! on Principe Island

Rebecca finds her critter! Principe GG III (Weckerphoto)


Rebecca's critter (an acanth of course), Principe

Rebecca’s critter.  Pico Papagaio, Principe GG III (Weckerphoto)

Finally, thanks to SCD a couple of weeks ago, we were offered a boat ride to the inaccessible southwest coast of Principe The southwest exposures of all of the islands in this chain, Bioko, Principe, Sao Tome and Annobon are inaccessible by land because they receive the brunt of the incoming weather, hence erosive force comes from the southwest. For the same reason the Portuguese were unable to cultivate these areas during their 500 years of colonization here and on each island these exposures are pretty much untouched by man. In one sense the trip was a near disaster; our small rubber dingy flipped and a lot of our equipment was compromised, most of it temporarily. But the mushroom guys were able to collect a bunch of stuff on a virtually untouched steep slope, and Tom and Rebecca were able to establish that the dominant plant group in the southwest of Principe is the Rubiaceae, members of the coffee family.
A Principe mellistome
An acanth in the Contador Valley, Sao Tome

We are posting a bunch of images, mostly by Wes Eckerman, that are unlabeled. The reason for this is that in many cases we do not know yet what the stuff is. Stay tuned.
A fisherman in Lagoa Azul

A fisherman at Laguna Azul, Sao Tome.  GG III (Weckerphoto)
Next will be posting on my stuff, the creepy crawlies.



We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Research Investment Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/ and especially the generosity of three private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom and Timothy M. Muller, for making GG III possible.


Filed under: Gulf of Guinea — bob @ 10:19 am
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