California Academy of Sciences
 
 

WE BEGIN
Dispatch Number One - April 15, 2001

Photographs and text by Bob Drewes, Herpetology

Bob, Tomio, Jens and Ricka arrived in the tiny airport at São Tomé on the Tuesday early morning TAP flight after a journey that is best described as very, very long... They were met by Ned Seligman, a life-long friend of Bob´s who fell in love with São Tomé e Principé when he was Peace Corps Director on the islands and now lives here, and Dr. Tereza DÉspiney, head of ECOFAC, the European Union´s environmental arm. Both played major roles in making the expedition possible
Tomio Iwamoto tries sampling mudskippers (Periophthalmus) by fly rod at Pria Dos Conchas, north end.
Our head logistician is Quentino (Tino) Quade. Tino teaches English here in São Tomé but also works for STeP UP, Ned´s NGO. He is originally from Guinea Bissau. He looks just like the lead in the tv series SHAKA ZULU and at 6`5" is even taller than Dong Lin. He and Ned met when Ned took over the Peace Corps operation in that country, following his São Tomé assignment. Tino immigrated to São Tomé when Ned returned some years ago.
Bob Drewes and our STeP UP logistics coordinator Tino Quade. Lagoa Amelia, centra 1 mountain.
 

Early morning on our second day, local television people arrived outside our apartment in the city-- we were instant celebrities-- this helped significantly when Bob was flagged down by the police many days later for a driver´s license check. The fact that we are driving only with California credentials appears to be much less important than the fact that we have been on television, and our intentions are well understood! We´re OK with the police. São Tomé is a small, happy place where everybody knows everyone else. Although there are some Nigerians and Ivorians from the mainland, the great majority of the population descended from slaves brought over by the Portuguese as labor for the sugar cane, and later cacao industries beginning as early as the Fifteenth Century. One happy result of this sad history is the fact that there are no tribes or tribalism on the island, none of the "we vs. they" attitude that so pervades the mainland.
One of our hosts and fellow San Francisan, Ned Seligman, Director of STeP UP.
The abandoned cacao plantation at Micondo, southeast coast of São Tomé.

The first three days were devoted to acquainting the first team with the topography of the island. Bob had visited the island last year to do an initial reconnaissance, but had never seen the western side of the island. There is a good road from the capital down the eastern side of the island to the tip at Porto Alegre, is a fishing village and old copra industry. Inland from the road are numerous, mostly abandoned cacao plantations, some of which actuallly had railroads to transport the crop to the sea. Fortunately, old cacao is a reasonably benign environment for native wildlife, and the herpetologists have been finding many of the species they seek in these lowlands. In the plantation buildings, they have found good series of the common species that are good dispersers and frequently found on oceanic islands, including geckos and skinks. We have encountered many large arthropods, including some rather frightening ones beneath cacao leaves!

The northern end of the island was under sugar cane in the early 15th Century; in fact São Tomé was the world´s leading producer of sugar 500 years ago! The north is also in the rain shadow of the central mountains resulting in less rainfall than the central and southern sections. Today, it is a strikingly different grassland/savanna habitat complete with Baobab trees (Adansonia digitata). Inland from Praia de Mutamba we did a transect up through some remnant dry deciduous forest that required descending a cliff face on strangler fig roots. We found some excellent sites for future exploration by the entomologists and their malaise traps.
Strange bedfellows! These poisonous scolopendras are common in lowland forest. Java
Tomio´s goal is to sample the freshwater fish diversity; it has not been examined since 1895. We travelled down the western side of the island as far as the Rio Lemba, near the terminus of the road (there are no roads in the southwestern quadrant of the island-- the same is true on Principé and Bioko), sampling various rivers with Tomio´s seine nets. It was not until a local named Jose showed us how to actually do it that we began to meet with some success as many of the fish, mostly gobies and relatives, are under rocks. At time of writing, Tomio already has more different kinds of freshwater fish than were recorded in the late 1800´s! The most difficult fish to catch so far has been the elusive, wary mudskipper (Periopthalmus); the species here is quite large but extremely difficult to approach. Tomio tried his flyrod but without success. We may email John McCosker for some new patterns!
Tomio descending a cliff face via fig roots.

Our first snakes came from the western side of the island, and both species we have collected appear to be quite common. Both are considered endemic-- we have yet to encounter the forest cobra, the only venomous species and thought to have been introduced here. The green bush snake, Philothamnus thomensis, is a diurnal frog and lizard eater; the São Tomé house snake, Lamprophis lineatus bedriagae, is strictly nocturnal and a generalist, diet-wise.
The endemic green bush snake, Philothamnus thomensis, Anambo, west coast.
 
Collecting tadpoles of the minute endemic puddle frog, Phrynoba trachus dispar in the central mountains near Java.
Ricka Stoelting's first snake, the endemic bush snake, Philothamnus thomensis. Anambo, southwest coast

The fabulous endemic genus, Nesionixalus thomensis, found in a hollow tree at over 1300 meters near Bom Sucesso.
Jens Vindum searches leaf litter for caecilians (the endemic legless amphibians - "cobra bobo"
The land rises rather preciptiously as one heads inland and we have made a number of forays into the mountains. The roads vary from reasonable to treacherous depending upon the rains, and it rains frequently above the 500 meter contour line. There are many endemic plant species here, and a great many are in flower. In puddles in the road we have found puddle frogs, and tadpoles. The tiny puddle frog here (Phrynobatrachus dispar) is endemic to both islands and quite common in wet places One of our early trips up to an old plantation called Java yielded one of the two endemic treefrogs, a lovely green frog with a quacking call known as Nesionixalus molleri. Bob believes it is really a member of the genus Hyperolius, and this is one of his many questions about the islands. But most importantly, at Java we found our first specimens of caecilians, the strange, legless order of amphibians that should not be here! There are even supposed to be two species if them, although we have our doubts-- this may be part of Ricka´s Masters thesis... The real question is, if São Tomé was never a part of the mainland, how did these fossorial burrowers ever make it out to the island across 300 km. of deep salt water! But here they are and in great abundance. Once we learned how to find them at Java we have been able to find them nearly at sea level and as high as 600 meters.
One of many great moments so far occurred down at Rio Santa Luiza, on the west coast. One party was seining in the river with Tomio, while Jens started turning over leaf litter beneath a large buttress-rooted tree by the side of the bridge. A bunch of curious kids came up to Jens and addressed him in Portuguese (which of course, Jens does not speak). He answered them with the only word in the local dialect he knew, "cobra bobo!" Cobra bobo is the local name for caecilian. Every time one of the kids would speak with him, Jens would answer cobra bobo!. Eventually one was found, and pretty soon a whole cadre of kids was searching the leaf litter, all laughing and shouting out cobra bobo, cobra bobo!. Those of us in the river could hear this strange hooting sound coming from beneath the tree. We got a fine series of caecilians there, and continued south...But what is truly unforgettable is that on our return from the south many hours later, people sang out "Cobra bobo!" to us from the side of the road along a nearly five mile stretch!
The strange, endemic legless amphibian, Schisometopum thomense, along the Rio Maria Luisa
Charles Griswold joins us on the 6th; Dong Lin, Doug Long and Fabio Penny arrive four days later. We will show Charles and Doug a number of the insect and bat sites we have already discovered.
A colony of bats in a tunnel at 600 meters on the western slopes of the Contador, São Tomé's deepest valley.
 


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