• Aerial photo of Príncipe island with plane propeller
    Even though Príncipe is smaller than Brooklyn, it hosts dozens of species found nowhere else on Earth.
  • A treefrog on a leaf in São Tomé
    One of the country's endemic species, the São Tomé Giant Reedfrog breeds in water-filled tree cavities.
  • Smiling boy holds up a book about São Tomé and Príncipe in a classroom
    São Toméan students learned about endemic plants and animals through coloring books distributed on a 2012 expedition.

Free with RSVP!

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Racing the Clock to Document Biodiversity in Africa’s Eden
Wednesday, February 26, 7 pm
African Hall

Featuring Rayna Bell, PhD, California Academy of Sciences

The pace of life in the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe is perhaps best encapsulated by the local saying “leve leve,” which roughly translates to “slow and easy.” And with a total population of fewer than 200,000 people and only a few flights a week between the former Portuguese colony and Lisbon, daily life in this equatorial country has continued with minimal interruption for decades. Much of the islands’ natural habitat remains intact and hosts some of the highest levels of endemism (species that are found nowhere else) on the planet. With ongoing surveys to pinpoint offshore oil reserves, however, the São Toméans may soon face the challenge of reconciling rapid economic development with preserving their natural heritage. The problem is that no one knows how many species occupy the islands or how irreplaceable that diversity might be, and this is what inspired the “island biodiversity race.”

For the past 18 years, Bob Drewes, PhD, Curator Emeritus of Herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences, has led a team of biologists in a race to document the diversity of animals, plants, and fungi on the islands. So far, the team has recorded hundreds of species, many of which are new to science and can only be found on a single island. Even though we’re starting to make a dent in describing the islands’ biodiversity, the lifestyles of all these species are largely unknown, which can be problematic for conservation planning. For example, the island of Príncipe hosts Africa’s largest treefrog species, but no one has ever seen where it breeds or what its tadpoles look like, information necessary to identify the habitats this species relies on. Finding those tadpoles and learning more about how to ensure their survival is one of the many scientific goals for Rayna Bell, PhD, the Academy’s new Assistant Curator of Herpetology.

In this Lilienthal Lecture, Bell will share some of the most exciting scientific discoveries from nearly two decades of expeditions to the islands by a team that studies everything from mosses and lichens to jumping spiders and birds. Since a central focus of the “biodiversity race” is communicating our results to São Toméans through local media and community outreach, Bell will share some of the ways our biodiversity discoveries are making an impact on a local and international scale.

This event is part of the Claire Matzger Lilienthal Distinguished Lecture Series

About Rayna Bell

Herpetologist Rayna Bell holds a frog in her lab

Rayna Bell, PhD, joined the Academy as Assistant Curator of Herpetology in September 2019. She studies the evolution, ecology, and visual systems of tropical frog species.