ON THE MOUNTIAN
Friday, 05.04.01, 0730 hours
São Tomé Home Base
Joel, Dong, Allen, Ricka and Mathilde, a young French conservationist with ECOFAC, went to Cabinda to meet Rato. Rato is a local collector with knowledge of the region who helps visiting scientists acquire desired specimens. The group was soon looking for large tarantulas in Santa Fe, and Ricka was searching for caecilians in cacao and palm oil plantations. Ricka was particularly successful in finding eight of these legless amphibians in only a half-hour within a 50-meter square area. In addition, Ricka tried to explain to the local residents that she was searching for blindsnakes. However, not being a Portuguese speaker, she had to be creative. By playing a game of "charades" - using gestures to illustrate "blindness" and "snake" - the goal seemed within reach. Since Rato spoke some French, both Joel and Mathilde translated what they could, but understanding finally came when a blindsnake was suddenly spotted and collected on the walk back to the car. Now finding more blindsnakes would become easier.Back to School
This morning Fabio gave a talk and computer training session at the Liceo Nacional (National School), the major high school in São Tomé serving 4000 students ranging in ages from 16 to 22. What was to be an hour-long talk and demonstration soon extended to 3.5 hours. The school has a computer lab, stocked with five donated computers and an internet connection from Banhof ST, a local (German-owned) ISP. Together with lab coordinator Pundu, we spoke about and demonstrated the power of the internet and its uses in science and education. Upon my arrival a digital photo of the class was taken and loaded onto the computer. Many had not seen a laptop before, nor a digital camera, and almost all were just being introduced to the Internet for the first time. After altering the image by using Adobe Photoshop, it was placed on a mock web page. By this point, the room was SRO. The crowd doubled the maximum capacity of 50, and soon people were standing on chairs hoping to get a glimpse of the action. Citing the lack of space and bountiful interest, a second session was held. After speaking with the subdirector of the school and computer lab coordinators, plans were drawn for a private training session and simple web page to be created, maintained and updated by the students of Liceo Nacional. Banhof ST will be solicited to donate web hosting and domain name services.
Saturday, 05.05.01 1000 hours
A small group headed out to meet Delfin, Rato’s assistant, to see if he had found any more blindsnakes. Embarrassed about not having acquired any, he nonetheless presented them with an extremely large caecilian and the housesnake, Lamprophis l. bedriagae.
Obo National Park
Having only one vehicle available, we were forced to make two trips: one for scientific gear and the second for supplies. Norm, Ricka, Tino, and Joel headed up first followed by Fabio, Dong and Allen. We have massaged our schedule, allowing enough flexibility for each individual to determine his or her length of stay. Each has respective goals for this outing at Bom Sucesso: Ricka wants more Nesionixalus thomensis, the endemic São Tomé tree frog; Norm would like more Chrysopidae (lacewings) and some spittlebugs (Cercopidae, in particular); Joel wants leaf litter for the Winkler traps; while Dong and Fabio are recording the sounds of the forest.
Ricka and Delfin came back with a Lamprophis lineatus, the second common housesnake of the day, but the first from this location. In payment for his help, Delfin simply asked for a lift down the mountain to Trinidade, a distance of 4km, and we gladly obliged.
Humidity and the wear of travel have taken a toll on some of our electronic equipment: the CD burner and Dong’s digital camera are both out of commission. Fortunately, we still have two other digital cameras within our group. We are keeping oscillating fans near our equipment at all times.
Norm and Fabio came back from the radio tower, a couple miles away. The duo collected 50 spittlebugs and 4 more green lacewings (totaling 55 in 18 days).
The Spittlebugs of São Tomé
Most California school kids have seen them the little frothy nests that form on plants every spring. These are the nymphs of spittlebugs. The foam nests are secreted around the nymph to help maintain a high humidity and prevent attacks from parasites and predators. These insects reach their greatest size, diversity and color in the tropics. In these areas many adults are bright red and orange and can be more than an inch long. Many are highly specific for certain species of plants and will almost never be found anywhere else. They suck the juices from these plants and can be economic pests, sapping the vigor of the plants and even killing them. Spittlebugs are among the most serious pests of pastures in many parts of South America. With time and a discerning eye a person can travel to different habitats and see a wide variety of these colorful insects. In almost every tropical area that Academy scientists visit there are dozens of species available to study - if one looks in diverse habitats and carefully examines the leaves of many plants.
It was known before the CAS São Tomé Project began that this island would be depauperate in comparison with the fauna of mainland Africa and other tropical regions. However, some spittlebugs would be expected to be present. Near the beginning of the trip one orange-winged species was discovered at 1300m elevation. Then, for more than two weeks, no more spittlebugs were discovered in lowlands and plantations. This seemed very strange, because these are the areas that would be most likely to harbor the insects. Then, after returning to the higher elevations around Bom Sucesso, a banana plant was discovered to have dozens of black spittlebugs with two red spots. A quick look around revealed that nearly ALL of the young banana leaves in the area were similarly covered with these spittlebugs. So, at least two species were present, one clearly being of economic importance. The next day the orange-winged species was seen flying around the area, and late in the day one individual was collected on a plant near a banana plant. The banana plant was then examined, and both forms were found to be abundant on the same leaves. Uh-oh…a mystery! It is known that some tropical species are strikingly dimorphic (with males and females having very different color patterns). Could we be seeing only a single species? But then, how to explain the banana leaves of the previous day being covered by only a single form? A quick examination of the genitalia would reveal if we had one or two species, but without a microscope we cannot tell. An even better solution would be to find a mating pair. So we will continue looking at leaves in a variety of habitats and studying the individuals on the young banana leaves in hopes of finding more species, and answering the question as to dimorphism in the banana spittlebug.
Bom Sucesso, Obo National Park
Ricka, Norm, Dong and Fabio headed to the radio tower this morning. Ricka wanted to pick up her collection bags and to take a better look at the tree habitat of the frog Nesionixalus thomensis. Norm went in search of the smallest of Neuroptera, the white lacewing (Coniopterygid) and assorted spiders. Dong wanted to finish the last of his interviews, and Fabio was documenting the morning’s activities.
Meanwhile, Joel and Allen headed towards Lagoa Amelia to acquire 3 more sacks of leaf litter. Due to the wetness of the litter, they took only a small batch. They hoped the litter will produce more interesting organisms later in the afternoon, when the sun has had a chance to dry out the forest floor.
Tino, Ricka and Fabio headed back to São Tomé to pick up additional supplies. A ladder is needed to explore the areas 15’ up in the tree canopy; alcohol for the Winkler traps; gas for the stove; fresh water and extra food for morale.
Dong has taken the opportunity to photograph more of São Tomé, and so with Tino driving, they headed to the lowlands. The day was providing a good light, and they made sure to go to Boca de Inferno a natural hot spring near a beautiful waterfall. Norm, armed with a sweep net and pooter, has ventured into the woods for some additional collecting. With Tino gone, Fabio has been asked to assist Joel and Allen with setting some pitfall traps later this afternoon.
With our vehicle gone and a need to transport a ladder to the radio tower, Ricka decided to take it into her own hands literally. The tower is approximately 3km away up a now-muddy trail. She was prepared to carry the ladder herself in order to get up high enough to see an elusive tree frog in the canopy. Determined and energetic, she was about to start out with her gear when Joel decided that it might be best to set up pitfall traps tomorrow morning. He set out with Ricka and Allen, providing a helping hand, to the radio tower. They planned to collect arachnids along the way and bring back some additional leaf litter.
We ate at a small, quaint restaurant with a wet bar in one corner, clothes hanging for sale in another, a wood-burning stove in another, and our dinner table with settings for seven in the fourth. When we asked for another bottle of water, the husband quickly ran down the block to the store to get some. It is at places like this that the best-tasting food is served, and indeed, after a traditional meal in Trinidade soup, rice, pork and chicken--a small group of us set out to look for and record the sounds of the tree frog Nesionixalus thomensis. Unfortunately, the courting males were much quieter than the previous night. We hope for more favorable (wetter, darker) weather to hear the males calling tomorrow night.