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Gulf of Guinea Expeditions 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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
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gasteracantha-thomasinsula

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

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

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

The parting shot:

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

PARTNERS

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, (GG I, II), the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe  and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who have made the last three expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll and Sheila Farr Nielsen. Our expeditions can be supported by tax-free donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


August 16, 2011

The Race: In Defense of the Road Less Traveled

In Memory of Rebecca C. Wenk: 1979-2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The parting shot.

parting-shot-jl-ggi

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”.


June 30, 2011

The Race: A New Species, Birds and Special People

Readers will recall our bryophyte expert, Jim Shevock, tireless companion on GG IV in 2010.  He is certainly one of the best field men I have met, and as I reported earlier, he collected around 700 specimens of mosses, hornworts and liverworts on São Tomé and Prìncipe.  The first fruit of his labors has just been published in the journal, Tropical Bryology; the description a new endemic species of moss from the island of São Tomé, a new species record for the island, and three new records for the country as a whole.

Jim with type

Jim Shevock with type of Porotrichum saotomense Enroth & Shevock- RCD phot.

The new species (of the Family Neckeraceae) is just the beginning.   Shevock and colleagues have another paper in press on the hornworts and liverworts (moss relatives) of the islands,  and the rest of the mosses are still being analyzed.  Jim expects many new species and records among this latter group, and all of this continues to show how rich and unique the biota of the islands is and at the same time, how poorly known.

Early readers of the blog will know that I only include experts on poorly-known groups of plants and animals on these expeditions. Thanks to the excellent doctoral work of Dr. Martim Melo, who employed molecular as well as morphological analysis, we know more about the birds of São Tomé and Prìncipe than any other vertebrate group and for that reason, we have never been accompanied by an ornithologist nor have I written much about them in this blog. That said, I must confess to being an unabashed birder of many years, a passionate bird “freak” with a life list that I keep on Facebook.

me birding

Birding on Principe – note puddle.  Desjardin phot.  GG III

The birds (avifauna) of these two islands are remarkable.  One of the commonest birds on São Tomé, even in the densely populated capital, is the endemic warbler, the São Tomé Prinia.  You cannot miss them and yet, I have never been able to photograph one– they just don’t stop moving!  So early in GG V I challenged my two colleagues, photographer Andrew Stanbridge and Poster Project Head, Velma Schnoll to take just one photograph of the critter.  Here are the results (bear in mind these were taken on the grounds of the Omali Lodge, the upscale hotel of our supporters, Africa’s Eden)—decide for yourselves who won:

Andrew Prinia

São Tomé Prinia,  Prinia molleri . A. Stanbridge phot GGV

velma's prinia

Prinia molleri – V. Schnoll phot  GG V

Martim Melo and his colleagues have suggested that, taken together, the islands of São Tomé and Prìncipe have, per unit area, the highest concentration of endemic (unique) species in the world!  Below is a simple comparison between the heavily studied Galapagos Islands with a surface area of 8,000 km2 and our islands with only 1/8th the size.

bird comparison

The comparison above only tells part of the story; the  twenty two species of endemic Galapagos birds are basically descended from but three lineages: the mockingbirds, the flightless cormorant and the famous Galapagos finches; this is not surprising, given the great distance between the archipelago and South America.  On the other hand, the endemic birds of São Tomé and Prìncipe are from all over the phylogenetic map: flycatchers, pigeons, weavers, sunbirds, warblers, etc. etc.  Moreover, some workers recognize up to seven endemic genera here.  Here are just a few:

forest weaver

São Tomé forest weaver, Ploceus sanctithomae. Weckerphoto GG III

Speirops

(l) Sao Tome Speirops, Zosterops lugubris; (r) Principe Speirops, Zosterops leucophaeus. RCD and J. Uyeda phots. GG III

Newtons sunbird

Newton’s sunbird, Anabathmis newtoni. Weckerphoto – GG III

thrush

Sao Tome thrush, Turdus olivaceofuscus.  J. Uyeda phot- GG II

P golden weaver

Principe golden weaver,  Ploceus princeps. Weckerphoto  GG III

There are many other spectacular endemics on both islands; I have mentioned the island phenomena of gigantism and dwarfism in earlier blogs.  São Tomé Island is also home to the world’s largest weaver (Ploceus grandis), the world’s largest sunbird (Dreptes thomensis) and the world’s smallest ibis (Bostrychia bocagei)!

Many people support our work in the islands, and as you know I acknowledge financial help at the end of each blog.  Still others are old friends who live on the islands through whom we work and who welcome and assist us on each expedition. These too have appeared many times in the blog and they include the people of the organization STeP UP, where it all started (Ned Seligman, Quintino Quade and Roberta dos Santos), and our friend, Sr. Arlindo Carvalho, Director General in the Ministry of the Environment.

Arlindo

Arlindo Carvalho, Ministry of the Environment.  A Stanbridge phot GG V

Dr. Carvalho told me that during the past year, he has  shown this blog to delegates at a number of international meetings on Climate Change he has attended representing the Republic… a great honor for us.

GG V was unique in that it was dedicated to biodiversity awareness not pure science; because we were less in the bush and more in the inhabited areas, it led to our meeting some remarkable people who actually joined our efforts simply out curiosity about and interest in our activities.

eddie @ angolares

Velma Schnoll, Eddie Herbst and me at Angolares. A. Stanbridge phot. GG V

I first met Eddie Herbst at the Omali Lodge during GG IV where I gave one of my slide shows on island biodiversity.  Eddie was seriously interested in what we were doing at the time, and during GG V he actually joined us while we distributed our posters down the east coast of São Tomé (above).

But Eddie’s real job is senior pilot for Africa’s Connections, the small airlines that serves both islands and various mainland cities around the Gulf (he is also an ordained minister, but that is another story), and he is usually in the cockpit when we travel between the two islands.

Eddie Herbst

Eddie Herbst’s day job.   RCD phot GG V

During GG V, I asked Eddie if he could fly over a large mesa in the remote southwest corner of Príncipe, as I have always wanted to study the top and wondered about access routes.  I should mention that this is definitely not the usual approach route to the Prìncipe landing strip! To give you an idea of how rugged and difficult the southern part of the island is, below is a topographic image of this part of the island.

Bobke

Topo map of SW Principe. red and yellow dots on mesa.

as mesa

The mesa from the air.  RCD phot. GG V

And here is the view we got from Eddie’s flyover which, I might add, was an experience the other passengers will probably never forget!

On that same plane was a remarkable Portuguese couple, Frank and Ana. They were both fluent in English, warm and friendly, and we became friends almost immediately.

Frank and Ana

Ana and Frank on Principe.  RCD phot. GG V

Bear in mind that these two were full-paying guests at Bom Bom which is by far the most upscale and expensive venue on Prìncipe; yet rather than lying on the beach, or fishing or whatever,  Frank and Ana joined us each day as translators as we drove from school to school distributing our posters.  Through sheer good will and friendliness, they added greatly to the effectiveness of our small team.

F and A trans

Anna and Frank translating. A. Stanbridge phot.  GG V.

Believe it or not, also on Eddie’s plane was a fabulous lady named Marnie Saidi, also bound for Bom Bom Lodge  but not as a tourist.  Marnie is the new Project Manager for the Africa’s Eden Belo Monte project (which I will perhaps describe in another blog).  Like Frank and Ana, Marnie joined us for fun and acted as translator on our various daily tasks, including our meeting with the Regional President of Prìncipe, Toze Cassandra and the subsequent local television interview.

Marnie 2

Marnie Saidi translating during TV interview.  A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

Marnie 1

Marnie Saidi and Velma Schnoll, Principe primary school. A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

These serendipitous meetings were not limited to Prìncipe; during our final week on the big island we met a young Portuguese business man named Antonio Fernandes.  Just like Marnie, Frank and Ana, Fernando joined us on some of our longest poster trips during our last week… and I should mention he also had a functioning vehicle!. This is part of GG V I have not yet described.

antonio at ISP

Antonio, me and Quintino before ISP conference on Sao Tome.  A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

Antonio trans

Antonio translating at Sao Tome secondary school. A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

Finally, individual personalities are very important on expeditions; a little friction now and then is to be expected but on a research expedition which is mostly out in the bush,  this matters somewhat less than on an expedition such as GG V.  We were in daily contact with the citizens, teachers, ministers and other government officials and each of us had to be goodwill ambassadors every hour of every day.

My colleagues on this trip, Velma Schnoll, who took over the poster project here in the States and brought it to completion, and Andrew Stanbridge, the world’s largest and sneakiest photographer were both exactly that and much  more.  They will be more than welcome back on the islands at any time.

at Monte Cafe

Andrew Stanbridge at Monte Café, Sao Tome.   RCD phot. GG V

me and velma

Velma Schnoll and me at Principe primary school.  A. Stanbridge phot. GG V

Here’s the parting shot:

parting shot

“Education is an act of love and courage.”  Principe Secondary School, A. Stanbridge phot.  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, 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 Loloum of Zuntabawe  and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll and Sheila Farr Nielsen for helping make these expeditions possible.  Our expeditions can be supported by donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.


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