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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

December 30, 2009

The Race: On Tiny Skinks and Contemplating GG IV

It is the holiday season in this part of the world, and the California Academy of Sciences (where most of us island biologists work) is absolutely packed.  I thought I would share a few images of our public floors.  We scientists and our collections and laboratories are behind the scenes in an off-limits wing, and I would bet that a lot of our public visitors still do not realize we do science here; last year we had 2.3 million of them from all over the world.

Visitors waiting at the front entrance, (12:30 PM, Dec. 30th, 2009- RCD)

The Rainforest exhibit – RCD photo.

Waiting to enter the Rainforest RCD-photo.

Our albino alligator Claude’s swamp,  central courtyard. RCD phot.

So if it is the holiday season, why am I here in the lab?  Part of the answer is that I am planning our next expedition, GG IV. A small group of us are going back to the islands in February with several rather specific missions… I will describe our plans in the next blog.  Meantime, here are some updates:

Dr. Tom Daniel’s publication with Estrela Figueirido on the Acanth flowers of São Tomé and Príncipe was just published today, and we are taking copies over to islands with us.  As usual, we have provided an abstract in Portuguese.

Figure 3  from the new paper (T. Daniel composite).

Afroablepharis on Sao Tome – D Lin phot-GG II

Above is a leaf litter skink called Afroablepharis. Until we started working on the island fauna, both islands were thought to be inhabited by the same species (then called Panaspis africanus).  We provided tissue samples of some of our GGI material from both islands to colleagues at the University of Madeira. Dr. Jose Jesus and his colleagues found that the two populations were genetically distinct and that each island had its own, separate species.

On-going island projects (RCD construct)

Unfortunately, all of the original specimens from which tissues were taken were subsequently lost in the international mail and were never returned to the Academy.  Since we still have additional preserved skinks from the same localities on both islands, my Research Assistant, Lauren Scheinberg (left, above), is carefully examining all of them to find the physical differences we would usually (but not always) expect to find in two species distinct from one another. We are now formally collaborating with Dr. Jesus and his Madeira team.

Above, on the right, is Lisette, who is still working on the jita snakes (earlier blogs), and this has also expanded into a much larger project with several international collaborators and samples from mainland Africa.  The shrew comparison on the lower left is one of our goals for GG IV. We will meet up with Ricardo Lima on São Tomé, the man who rediscovered this unlikely creature.

More detail on GG IV when I return from Ethiopia.

Here’s the parting shot:

Principe Golden Weaver, Ploceus princeps.  Weckerphoto – GG III


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the continued support of Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore and Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III for helping make these expeditions possible.

Filed under: Uncategorized — bob @ 5:07 pm


  1. Bob, really great point. It has been one of the things that we struggle most with. As you know, I care a lot about the scientists. They are the source of the Academy’s credibility and the source of its most profound stories. They are why we can “explore and explain” the natural world. It’s up to everybody else to do the protect part of our mission statement, although some scientists are doing that as well.

    The funny thing is that the Research Division actually has stood in the way of helping making the Researcher’s more prominent. As you know I tried to bring the stories of Science Heroes to the foreground. I intended to showcase all the curators. After all, you guys are my heroes (I have a lot of heroes). The funny thing is I was shut down by the Research Division because they didn’t like the use of the word “heroes”.

    Heroes are looked upon as a bad thing by Research. There are all sorts of “hero worship” connotations. But that’s not the intention. Heroes are people we respect and look up to. Heroes are people we admire, and who inspire us.

    Heroes is a super powerful word. I see it when I am waiting for muni. There is a television show that is very popular called “Heroes”. CNN has a whole Heroes section. We need role models, and people admire men and women who put themselves in danger to help make the world a better place.

    I want your help getting rid of the negative connotation of heroes that apparently exists within the Research Division so that I can help bring them to their rightful place on the Academy’s stage, in the Spotlight. If the Academy is a stage, you guys are our stars! You are our authorities!

    Anyhow amigo, see you next decade. Wishing you the best.

    Caveat: I have made this public statement, with the hopes that it will break some ice. Yes its an internal matter, but by making it more public, I just felt it had more power, especially since your blog so deftly pointed out how few of our visitors know the Academy is a research institution.

    Comment by Donovan Rittenbach — December 31, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  2. Thanks for your comment, D. I, at least, am honored. I was unaware of resistance in the Division to the “heroes” business; and I am unclear as to who has been speaking for us as a whole…. I am pretty sure most of us do not think of ourselves as “heroes” in the current sense (life-savers in the NYPD and NYFD, Superman, or even Indiana Jones, etc.) .. But in your sense (role-models?), I do not see a valid objection… in fact, it would seem to be part of our mission, even if unintended.

    Comment by Bob — December 31, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

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