THE RACE: GG IX – RETURN TO THE BIG ISLAND

The seven members of GG IX all met up in the Lisbon airport on September 18 and arrived the next day in São Tomé. Two new collegues on this expedition are from Portugal. Dr. Luis Mendes, a butterfly expert from the Natural History Museum in Lisbon is finishing a major book on the butterflies of the islands and is checking certain localities for species that have not been seen for many years.

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Maria Adelina Jeronimo, a PhD candidate from the Gulbenkian Institute in Portugal, also studies butterflies but specifically the genetics of certain novel morphological characters. Maria is a matter of months from finishing her doctoral dissertation.

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Dr. Rayna Bell has returned for her third trip and is continuing her studies of the interesting hybridization phenomenon that seems to be occurring between the two endemic São Tomé tree frog species, reported in a major publication earlier this year. She has also discovered that the little green tree frogs of Principe, while seemingly nearly identical to those of São Tomé, are in fact a separate species. This does not surprise us really; see earlier blogs on geckos and snakes!

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Rayna is being assisted by our third new member,  Lauren Scheinberg of the Herpetology Department of the California Academy of Sciences.

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Our brilliant (and very tall) photographer, Andrew Stanbridge, has joined us for the fifth time (also as co-leader).

The education team is, as usual, Roberta Ayers and myself, plus our long-time São Toméan colleagues, Roberta dos Santos, Anita Rodriguez and Quintino Quade Cabral. Maria Jeronimo has been assisting. A new cycle begins this year, starting again with third grade.

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There have been several interesting discoveries already. A couple of years ago we published a study of the giant geckos of the islands, describing a new species from Príncipe (Miller, et al, 2012). We suggested that the large endemic species of São Tomé, Hemidactylus greefi, was only found in natural settings, having been out-competed in the towns by common, widespread recent colonizers. During our first week the group found an adult Greef’s gecko at sea level on a door in Angolares, the second largest town on the big island. I suspect that if competition with widespread common immigrants accounts for the absence of this gecko in the capitol city, there must be fewer of the former in Angolares. This is understandable as Angolares is still quite small and is not by any means a port city; that has always been São Tomé city.

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As in every year, we went to the Olea tree at Macambrara (1100 m) to check on the known population of the giant São Tomé tree frog, Hyperolius thomensis. Long-time readers will recall that two holes in this enormous tree are the only place we have consistently found this colorful species. While we have conjectured that the giant tree frog must be widespread in the higher elevation forests (we can hear it call from far above in the canopy), we have been unable to find another locality or tree with appropriate breeding holes… until now!

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With our colleague, Dr. Ricardo Lima of University of Lisbon, we were able to gain access to the primary forest above the huge southern oil palm plantation of Agripalma. At 350 m, above an abandoned roça called Monte Carmo, Bell, Scheinberg, Lima and Stanbridge found large numbers of the giant São Tomé tree frog breeding in pockets of water on fallen logs. This southern-most locality indicates, as we suspected, that this flamboyant frog is widespread in the relatively undisturbed forest and that while not restricted to high elevation (Macambrara), it does indeed seem to breed in pockets of water such as tree holes, rather than standing water like its close relative.

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Here, there appears to be no hybridization as the two tree frog species are separated by oil palm rather than less biologically hostile agricultural fields or plots. In fact, so far as I know, hardly any endemic vertebrates or native plants are able to survive in oil palm.

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This area is also the last bastion of a remarkable endemic bird, the Dwarf ibis, the smallest species of ibis in the world; it is severely threatened, both by hunting and by habitat destruction (oil palm). Notably, there are now two charismatic endemic species, a bird and a frog, endangered by human activities on this remote and fascinating island.

So far, this year’s activities have included working in a number of new localities including the central massif and in the far south. High in the mountains above Roça Agua Izé, one of the larger of the coastal colonial cacao plantations, we got our first decent view of a Giant weaver, Ploceus grandis. One of many endemic island giants on São Tomé and Príncipe, this colorful weaver is the largest in the world.

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As always, our educational efforts are aimed at raising the children’s awareness of the unique aspects of the island flora and fauna. We do not preach conservation per se. but rather try to show the young students how special their islands are and thus how special they are as owners.

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This year, each third-grader gets our coloring book about endemic bird species on both islands, a box of colored pencils and a pair of plastic binoculars (which work!!) These are not just handed out…. we present them personally to each student in each classroom, along with enthusiastic instructions for use, and the reasons  we come each year; we involve the students, the teachers, even school principals, and it is great fun. At the end, 10 of our stick-on logo patches are given to the teacher to reward good work. Each of us is involved at one time or another, as voices begin to suffer after 3 or 4 classroom visits.

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At this point, I must mention some wonderful folks who have been vital to the education effort this year: Alice and Wayne Settle conceived of and sponsored the acquisition of the small binoculars; Jim Boyer of the California Academy of Science once again produced a booklet that qualifies as a work of art, and help with producing the bird books is coming from the Príncipe Trust.

In the next blog, I will report on our progress on the smaller geologically ancient island of Príncipe.

Meantime, here’s the parting shot:

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All photos by Andrew Stanbridge

 

 PARTNERS:
We are most grateful to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for their continuing authorization to collect and export specimens for study, and to Ned Seligman, Roberta dos Santos and Quintino Quade of STePUP of Sao Tomehttp://www.stepup.st/, our “home away from home”.We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences for largely funding our initial two expeditions (GG I, II). The Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden provided logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), and special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-VII 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; GG VI supporters include Bom Bom Island and the Omali Lodge for logistics and lodging, The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abel, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke. GG VIII was funded by a very generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Mrs. W.H.V.“D.A.” Brooke, Thomas B. Livermore, Rod C. M. Hall, Timothy M. Muller, Prof. and Mrs. Evan C. Evans, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Clarence G. Donahue, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, and a heartening number of “Coolies”, “Blackhawk Gang” returnees and members of the Academy Docent Council. Once again we are deeply grateful for the support of the Omali Lodge (São Tomé) and Roça Belo Monte (Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging and for partially sponsoring part our education efforts for GG VII and GG VIII.

Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund

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