Learn more about Robert Drewes's work—and how he came to be a scientist—in this "Science Heroes" profile.
Over the past 13 years, Academy herpetology curator Bob Drewes has conducted eight multidisciplinary explorations of the island nations São Tomé and Príncipe. His research in the Gulf of Guinea (just off Africa's west coast) has documented an extremely high concentration of unknown and endemic bird species. During his more recent expeditions, Drewes and his team partnered with the local government to distribute biodiversity educational materials to schools, hospitals, hotels, and airports.
The Academy's 13 years of expeditions to São Tomé and Príncipe have involved more than 30 participants and produced more than 20 scientific publications. Led by herpetologist Bob Drewes, these expeditions have surveyed everything from the islands' reptiles and birds to more overlooked life forms such as diatoms and fungi. Other Academy scientists involved have included Jens Vidum, also from the Department of Herpetology; entomologists Norm Penny and Charles Griswold; and James Shevock, a moss and lichen expert. Citizen scientists have also contributed to the researchers’ understanding of life on São Tomé and Príncipe, with many island residents taking pictures of wildlife they encounter and sending images to Drewes and his collegues for identification.
In more recent years, the Academy has focused on local outreach programs in the island nation. Leaders of the Academy’s biodiversity awareness program are Velma Schnoll, Education Project Director, and Senior Science Educator Roberta Ayres.
Schools and Surveys
The small isolated islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are poorly studied, so the main objectives of Drewes’ first expeditions were massive multidisciplinary surveys of the area. For more than a decade, researchers from a variety of specialties have visited the islands to document its flora and fauna.
Drewes plans to continue surveying the islands, but in recent years, focus has shifted to the Academy’s biodiversity awareness program, which focuses on local schools. The discovery of oil (and the construction of a deep-sea port facility within the islands’ territorial boundaries) has increased the urgency of this initiative, with researchers and educators working against the clock to educate locals on the importance of preserving their homeland's unique biodiversity. The program's long-term goals include the construction of a Gulf of Guinea biodiversity center in São Tomé as well as a satellite center on Príncipe, so that scientists on the islands can easily share their research with colleagues.
Biodiversity Awareness Program
The Academy’s biodiversity awareness program in São Tomé and Príncipe began in 2010, when Academy scientists and educators assessed the biology curriculum in schools across the islands and placed posters about the islands’ flora and fauna in hotels, tourist centers, hospitals, and other high-traffic areas. Velma Schnoll, the leader of the program, returned in 2012 with other Academy educators to assess the success of their efforts and to continue to educate the same cohort of students.
Schnoll returned again in 2014 for her last meeting with the students, who, as fifth-graders, will disperse to different schools in 2015. She and colleagues handed out booklets about biodiversity to the students and held a public lecture/teacher workshop on the more advanced concepts behind the booklet.
By reaching out to primary schools, Drewes and Schnoll hope to instill environmental stewardship in the next generation of São Tomeans. Drewes calls their approach the “Ray Croc Model,” after the Czech business man who helped build the McDonald’s empire. “Ray Kroc did not create McDonalds, the world’s most successful food chain, by advertising to adults," Drewes points out. "He advertised to the kids!”
Amphibians on a Salt-Water Island
The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are 17 and 31 million years old, respectively. Since they've never been attached to mainland Africa, amphibians—which cannot cross the salty oceans because of their sensitive skins—shouldn't exist there, yet São Tomé and Príncipe boasts six frog species and one type of caecilian, an odd, legless amphibian. Their existence is a testament, says Drewes, to the age of the islands themselves, and he and his team are working to shed light on the mystery of how amphibians reached these places, as well as what their closest ancestors are. “The amphibian fauna we find here is more closely related to East African species on the other side of the continent than to species of the West African coast just a few hundred kilometers away," Drewes adds.
Drewes’s theory, published in 2007, hypothesizes that many animals “rafted” to the island. The currents of the Congo and Niger rivers flow through mainland Africa, draining into the Gulf of Guinea and passing through São Tomé and Príncipe. Drewes thinks that a large chunk (or chunks) of riverbank broke off and flowed down the gulf to the islands, dropping off some of the animals that can be found there today. Drewes’s hypothesis is also supported by the high number of animals on the islands that are mostly burrowers—meaning they're not the type to hang on a tree branch or stow away on a floating coconut.
The Academy's Herpetology collection of amphibians and reptiles is one of the ten largest in the world, containing more than 309,000 cataloged specimens from 175 countries. Learn more about the department's staff, research, and expeditions.