Category Archives: birds

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

The RACE: SIZE MATTERS!

It is a fundamental tenet of the science of island biogeography that more different species of plants and animals will be found on larger islands than on smaller ones. When we say “larger” in this regard, we really mean surface area. Note that in the graphic illustration below right, both islands have the exactly the same circumference, but the lower island has a mountain in the middle of it which markedly increases any measure of its overall surface area.

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RCD construct.

The greater (and more varied) the surface area, the larger the number of niches for living organisms; hence with time and evolution there will be more living plants on animals on larger islands than smaller (above left). For “niches”, think of “jobs”; every living thing has a three-part job: 1. where it does what it does (spatial niche); when it does what it does (temporal niche) and how it gets its energy (trophic niche). No two living things can overlap on all three and coexist, hence size (area) matters! There are other factors of course, such as geological age and island distance from source, that affect the numbers and characteristics of species found on islands.

Our islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are classic examples of the area/species number relationship. Here are just a few examples:

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Begonia thomeana. T. Daniel phot. — GG

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African butterfly. Photo from  ARKives. Google Images

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New tree frog (Hyperolius) species from Principe Id. A. Stanbridge phot– GG VII.

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African dragonfly.  ARKive phot. Google Images.

The island area effect is even more convincing when the entire archipelago of four islands is included, from the largest (Bioko) to the smallest (Annobón).

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 Lacewing distribution in Gulf of Guinea. Dong Lin phot. GG I; RCD construct.

As one can see, there is an obvious correlation between island size and the number of lacewings present; however in this case it is also important to note that while Bioko is clearly the largest island, it is also geologically youngest and closest to the mainland, having been attached to the mainland multiple times during the Pleistocene. Such factors can have an important effect on these comparisons. While these correlations prove correct over and over again. However this does not mean that very small islands cannot house wonderful biological surprises, and we are learning that this is true in the Gulf of Guinea.

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Jockey’s Bonnet. A. Stanbridge phot, GG VII

Above is the Jockey’s Bonnet (or Ilha Caroço) so named for its obvious shape. This large rock is only about 3.5 km off the southeast shore of Príncipe, only 35 hectares in area but perhaps 100 m in height. It was undoubtedly once part of the main island, which readers will recall dates back to the Oligocene Epoch, so it is probably quite old geologically.

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Jockey’s Bonnet. A. Stanbridge phot. GG VII

Although small, the Jockey’s Bonnet houses at least two very intriguing species. The population of native oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) on the western shores of this tiny island have obviously been there for a long time as they have begun to accumulate change from the parent species on the main Island, but a few km away! While still clearly the same species, the Jockey’s Bonnet palms bear seeds (fruit) that is at least twice the size of the palms on Príncipe and São Tomé.

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Bonnet oil palm seed. RCD phot. CAS botany specimen

For bird lovers, an even more exciting occurrence on the Jockey’s Bonnet is that of the Bonnet Seed-eater, a small brown passerine bird noticeably different from its relatives only a few kilometers away on Príncipe!

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Bonnet seed-eater. A. Stanbridge phot. GG VII

These unique birds are heavier, have longer, broader bills and shorter wings than their island neighbors and have been shown to be genetically distinct from them. They are extremely common (some 3,500 individuals at last estimate) and live exclusively in the oil palm forest pictured above. They have a specialized diet of palm oil and palm pollen, and it is tempting to speculate that there might be some relationship driving the evolution of the palms and the birds.

Isolation and evolutionary change within a population of birds separated from their nearest relatives by only 3 km may well seem counter-intuitive; after all, don’t birds fly? The answer is yes they do, but they don’t need to, they often don’t, at least not long distances! Flying is energetically expensive; if the habitat is relatively stable, suitable for survival and reproduction, why leave it? In spite of their ability to fly, most bird species tend to remain in specific kinds of habitats and areas. This is called philopatry.

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Tinhosa Grande.  A. Stanbridge phot. VII

Far to the south of Príncipe (ca. 20 km.) is a fascinating group of small islands known as the Tinhosas. The largest of these is Tinhosa grande (above) with a surface area of but 20.5 ha.

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RCD construct

Geologically the Tinhosas are of great interest because they mark the southernmost limit of the Oligocene Príncipe of over 31 million years ago. As we have noted in earlier blogs, Príncipe was once much, much larger but through millions of years of weathering, largely from the southwest, all that remains are the Tinhosas and Príncipe, along with its other islets. And again, Principe is twice as old as São Tomé.

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RCD phots, GG I and II  (right – bridled tern)

The Tinhosas are important rookeries for some sea birds such as Brown and Black Noddys, the Sooty Tern and Brown Booby and are recognized by Birdlife International as Wetlands of International Importance and official Waterfowl Habitat.

Tinhosa Grande is also inhabited by at least two different kinds of lizards, a skink species and a gecko species. These were observed and photographed by members of a recent ornithological expedition but specimens were not collected. Our colleague, Dr. Luis Ceriaco, of the Natural History Museum in Lisbon discovered that some of these skinks had been collected by a Portuguese expedition and deposited in that museum 45 years ago.

CeriacoDr. Luis Ceriaco with Principe giant tree frog..  phot from Facebook.

After analysis, Luis discovered that the Tinhosa Grande specimens represented a new species which he has described as Trachylepis adamastor. It is a very large skink differing from its nearest relatives in size, scales and coloration.

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Tinhosa skink. (Trachylepis). Ross Wanless phot.

Members of the more recent bird expedition reported to Ceriaco that that the population of these skinks seemed very dense, and Ceriaco later speculated that there might be a trophic relationship between the numerous skinks and the nesting birds. Notice above that the skink is feeding on a recently broken egg (this photo appeared in the paper by L. Cericaco). Such relationships are not unknown.

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Cousin Island. Google images; bridled tern RCD image, Cousin habitat RCD image; Mabuya wrighti James Warwick image)

Cousin Island of the Seychelles Archipelago in the Indian Ocean exhibits a strikingly similar situation that has been well-studied. This small island of 27 hectares supports enormous populations of two species of skinks: Mabuya wrighti, which is large, and Mabuya seychellensis, which is smaller. Studies revealed that in 1979 there were approximately 1,713 individual skinks per hectare, and that these were supported directly by nesting terns (60,000 pairs of Lesser Noddy terns alone) through broken eggs, feces and dropped fish. Such a situation may well exist on Tinhosa Grande.

The Tinhosa gecko remains a mystery. We have no examples of it and cannot examine its morphology or molecular relationships.

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Tinhosa gecko. (Hemidactylus sp.) Photos by Nuno Barros, courtesy, Birdlife Int.

The photos are not of sufficient quality to determine whether this gecko is related to one of the unique island species (H. principensis, H. greeffii) or is a more widespread species.

We are preparing for GG IX in September. More anon.

The parting shot:

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A 4th grade Sao Tomean student with our biodiversity playing cards. A. Stanbridge phot. GG VII

 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 Bom Bom Island (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

 













The Race: GG VII—We Reunite and Part Again

After two hectic weeks of education activities on São Tomé, Rayna Bell (Cornell University) arrived and the four of us joined the botanists, Tom Daniel, Jim Shevock, Miko Nadel, Tamas Szuts (our spider guy) and Andrew Stanbridge (our photographer) on Príncipe.   I  have asked Andrew, a veteran of three Gulf of Guinea expeditions, to illustrate some of what transpired while the group was divided.

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Our botany team, day one on Principe: Jim Shevock, Tom Daniel and Miko Nadel.

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Botany team en route to climb the mesa. Back left in the yellow hat is our guide Baloo.

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Jim on the “trail” to the mesa.

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Male Leptopelis palmatus found on the trail to the mesa. The females are the largest tree frogs in Africa.

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Tom discovers Principina, a unique sedge.

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Miko on top of the mesa

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Jim and Tom collecting specimens along the route to Roça Sundy.

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First Academy visit to the offshore island “Jockey’s Bonnet”.

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Bonnet seedeater, unique to the small island of “Jockey’s Bonnet”.

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Tom carrying specimens upriver.

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Tamas and “Bobby” Bronkhurst pooting spiders on Jockey’s Bonnet.   Here is the parting shot.

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  All images 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-V 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 VII has been 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 continued support of the Omali Lodge (São Tomé) and Bom Bom Island (Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging and especially for sponsoring part our education efforts for GG VII. Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”

The Race: Peregrinations of a Pinniped (Our Islands get Seal of Approval)

I have recently learned from my island friend Madalena Patacho of Bom Bom Island that a Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus) was seen and photographed on a beach at the north end of Príncipe Island and was also later seen by a number of islanders along the São Tomé coast.

 

The Cape (South African) fur seal, Arctocephalus pusillus at Praia Sundy, Principe Id. December 2012. photo by Jamili

Why is this noteworthy? It is special because although vagrant individuals of this large species have occasionally been seen as far north as the southern border of Angola, the nearest breeding colony of Cape (or South African) fur seals is just under 2,700 km south of Príncipe, at Cape Cross Namibia!  This is almost exactly the same distance as between Príncipe and Kampala, Uganda.

My colleague, Bastien Loloum works for MARAPA, an NGO on the islands heavily involved in marine life and conservation. Bastien is coordinator of a cetacean  monitoring program there. So far they have recorded ten species of cetaceans but he informs me that there are no formal records of the Cape fur seal in the islands waters.  However, he and his colleagues think that this is may be the second or third account of a vagrant fur seal there during the past decade.  This would be rare indeed, but for reasons given below, I am not too surprised.

Map from  IUCN Red list.

The Cape or South African fur seal is the largest of its kind (Otariidae= fur seals + sea lions; true seals lack external ears and belong to a different family, the Phocidae); males reach 2.27m in body length and 360kg in mass. Females are much smaller. As the map shows, this species lives and breeds along the South African and Namibian coast. There are about 23 major breeding colonies, and there are population estimates of over one million individuals. In 1992,  I was fortunate to explore the Skeleton Coast of Namibia by air from Capetown to about 16º south latitude, and the Cape fur seal colonies were impressive to say the least.

Above the Namib coast;  RCD photo 1992

Above the Namib coast;  RCD photo 1992

Later and somewhat farther north, we were able to approach a colony by land as there were intervening rocks disguising our presence.

On the Namib Coast.  RCD phot. 1992

On the Namib Coast. RCD phot. 1992

Note the conspicuous external ear which is one characteristic that differentiates these mammals from true seals. RCD phot. 1992

The key to understanding how these enormous populations of large pinnipeds are sustained, and how one individual might have arrived in the Gulf of Guinea 2700 km to the north lies in understanding the nature of the Benguela Current which flows up the west coast of southern Africa. The Benguela is a cold current and is thus highly oxygenated water. This supports vast amounts of plankton which in turn provide sustenance for a huge marine fauna “higher up the chain.” In fact, the Benguela Current is one of the richest fisheries in the world.

Notice the persistent, thick, slightly discolored foam on the shore which indicates high plankton content in the water. RCD phot. 1992

A major factor important to our seal story and indeed, perhaps to the early colonization of the Gulf of Guinea islands’ unique plants and animals, is the fact that the Benguela Current flows from South to North and has undoubtedly done so since the Atlantic Ocean opened up in the Cretaceous.

Dominant currents in  the Gulf of Guinea and South Africa.  CAS construct

As the map shows, the Benguela flows north past the Congo River Delta. At the same time, the Guinea Current flows West to East across the Niger Delta. These two currents converge in the Bight of Benin to form the South Equatorial Current, and this major current flows due West, directly through the Gulf of Guinea Islands and across the Atlantic.

Hypothesized raft. artwork by Richard E. Cook. insert photos D. Lin GG I and II

Because these two major currents cross the deltas of two of the mightiest rivers in Africa each with huge interior drainages, then change direction westward through São Tomé and Príncipe suggested to us that many of the endemic plants and animals on the two islands arrived there millions of years ago by rafting.  We suggested that the raft(s) would be large chunks of riverbank which broke off and floated to the sea. Our hypothesis that the rafts would have been very large is supported by the fact that a significant percentage of the unique reptiles (and one amphibian) of both islands are burrowing species (see inset, above), unlikely to cross ocean barriers on small floating objects.  We published this hypothesis in the Journal of Biogeography in 2007.

With respect to our Cape fur seal visitor, a closer look at the first image reveals that this animal ran afoul of a fishing operation of some sort; note the blue polyethylene rope or netting around its neck which may have come from a trawling operation to the south.  While it is highly unlikely that the poor creature was dragged 2700km, it IS possible that having been entangled, and then escaping, the seal became disoriented and probably very much weakened.  It seems likely that the “line of least resistance” would be to follow the Benguela Current until it converged with the South Equatorial Current, ultimately depositing the animal in the waters off São Tomé and Príncipe. This, in a sense, would be following part of the same dispersal pathway as the original plant and animal colonizers of the islands if our rafting hypothesis is correct.  It is impossible to know for sure, but this seems to me a possible scenario.

Here’s the parting shot:

Blue-breasted kingfisher. This one hangs out above Bom Bom Island, Principe. Weckerphoto -GG III

 

PARTNERS
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, (GG I, II), the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to collect and export specimens for study. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-V 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 HBD of Bom Bom 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. Abell, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, John and Judy Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke.
Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Race: Our Omali Base, Year’s Odds and Ends

Year’s end and things are busy, even in Academia.   Here at the Academy, we are already in planning mode for GG VI but more on that in coming months.  We are awaiting the publication of more of our discoveries, and I will report them here as they appear.  In the meantime this is a good opportunity to thank all of you who have helped make next year’s expedition a probability: the Herbst Foundation, the “Blackhawk Gang”, and the California Academy of Sciences Docent Council.

As readers know, our mission is not only to discover and scientifically describe what is on these wonderful old islands but to let others know about it, especially the citizens.   But, this also includes the business visitor and tourists primarily interested in fishing or ocean activities.  The neat unique critters we are studying are not just isolated up in the higher reaches of the forest; many can be found right downtown.  You just have to look.

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The Omali Pool [photo and toes- V. Schnoll, GG V]

On the beach of Praia Lagarto, between the airport and downtown São Tomé, lies the Omali Lodge.  Originally built by a Mr. Hellinger, I remember it in its original incarnation as the Marlin Beach Hotel, one of the best bars in the islands– a real gathering place.  It is small and quite upscale but it retains its original flavor.  Folks who know the islands or have been well informed stay at the Omali; it attracts rather fascinating people.

The Omali is pretty fancy digs for a bunch of bush biologists like us but luckily, the Omali’s owners have supported our work by allowing us to stay there during our last three expeditions.  As comfortable and friendly as the Omali is, the central thing for our work is a dependable power source (although a post-fieldwork dip in the pool is not too shabby!)

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The Omali [Weckerphoto, GG III]

So as a new visitor, if you walk through the foyer and bar out to the back to the pool, you will first be struck by the enormous coconut palms.  Ignore them for now; to the left around the back of the kitchen, and behind the rockwork in the pool are several other palm-like trees that aren’t!

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screw pines, Pandanus thomensis. fruit (r), prop roots (l)  [T. Daniel, GG III, IV]

These are the São Tomé screw pines, Pandanus thomensis.  You can tell them from the palms by the fact that the base of each tree is supported by a number of prop roots (see right, above).  Obviously, these are neither pines nor coconuts; the important thing to know is that these trees are found only on São Tomé, nowhere else in the world.

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Trachylepis maculilabris. [D. Lin, GG II]

As you walk along the pool, the first quick movement in the grass is likely to be a speckle-lipped skink, particularly common during the heat of the day.  These lizards are not unique to the islands but they are very good dispersers across oceanic barriers, and they are found on many of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean islands.  Some of our colleagues have looked at the genetics of the São Tomé and Prìncipe skinks and suggest that while they are not endemics, they have been on the islands since long before man arrived.

Lygo thomensis  JU III

Lygodactylus thomensis [J. Uyeda, GG II]

On the walls surrounding the pool and rooms lives the São Tomé day gecko, Lygodactylus thomensis, which shuttles in and out of the shade in search of insects.  Most geckos are nocturnal creatures, but this group is secondarily diurnal.  L. thomensis is a true endemic whose ancestors probably reached São Tomé millions of years ago; the same is true of its closest relatives, the Prìncipe day gecko, L. delicatus, and the Annobon day gecko, L. wermuthi.

Scutellaridae true bug weck

Homopteran true bug [Weckerphoto, GG III]

Most of the Omali plants are ornamentals from other parts of the world of course, but this does not mean they do not harbor fascinating species.  Our photographer on GG III, Wes Eckerman took the photograph above of a homopteran bug on a bush near the Omali pool.   Our entomologists have not been able to identify it beyond the Family Scutellaridae! It is highly likely that an enormous number of the islands’ insects remain to be discovered and described scientifically.

waxbill

Common waxbill,  Estrilda astrild [Weckerphoto, GG III]

cordon bleu

Blue-cheeked cordon-bleu, Uraeginthus cyanocephala [Weckerphoto GG III]

Bird life around the pool is plentiful and entertaining. The most commonly seen birds in the Omali bushes are various finches and waxbills that are of African origin and possibly brought over from the mainland as pets by the Portuguese colonials (above).  But the real specialty is the São Tomé Prinia.  Prinias are Old World insectivorous warblers; there are about 30 species divided between Africa and Asia.  Prinia molleri is the only member of this group in the islands and it is found only on São Tomé, from downtown all the way to the top of Pico at 2,000 meters. As common and seemingly fearless as this endemic little bird is, it is extremely difficult to photograph. It just won’t hold still.

pRINIA

Prinia molleri on Omali window sill [Weckerphoto, GG III]

pRINIA2

Prinia molleri [Weckerphoto, GG III]

Finally, lying around the Omali pool it is impossible not to notice the noisy action up at the top of the palm trees.  Part of the year the palm fronds seem to be inhabited mostly by vitelline masked weavers. Even when they are not around their distinctive nests from the year before are obvious. Males display noisely to attract females to the new nests, which are made annually.

Weaver_Vitelline_Masked_Soitorgoss_Daudi_2007_03_19_2b

Vitelline masked weaver,  Ploceus velatus [Globaltwitchers phot]

These weavers are native but not unique to the islands although some ornithologists recognize them as a distinct race (or subspecies, Ploceus velatus peixotoi) indicating that they may have been isolated from the mainland long enough to be recognizably different from the mainland species.  These weavers are not found on Prìncipe.  All who know them would agree that weavers are a noisy group in general.

When we are working on the islands, usually March-May, the weavers are rather scarce and instead, their place in the palm trees seems to be taken up with the large island fruit bat, Eidolon helvum. These large bats are common on the African mainland where they are migratory; the São Tomé populations are thought to be the same species but do not migrate.  They are eaten by many local people.

Bat Eidolon helvum

Eidolon helvum at the Omali [RCD, GG V]

An hour or so at the Omali pool at the right time of year is enough to learn that Eidolon is a very noisy animal as well.  They seem to argue and fuss all day when they should be sleeping; the sight of the entire group flying off to feed at dusk is unforgettable.

velma

Fruit bats leaving the Omali at dusk [V. Schnoll phot. GG V]

Bats are a group much in need of genetic study.  There are a number of endemic species recognized by anatomical characters, but in most cases their true species status has not been tested molecularly as we have done with the Sao Tome shrew (see earlier blogs).  The expert on the bats of these islands is my colleague Dr. Javier Juste of the Doñana Institute in Seville, Spain.  In an earlier blog I reported that Dr. Juste was involved in the description of a new pipistrelle bat from Prìncipe – this is not yet published and is based in part on genetics. During the past few weeks, I have sent Javier some images of bats we have taken during past expeditions, and he has kindly tried to identify them for us.

bats Nova Cuba

Hipposideros bats at Nova Cuba, Principe [Weckerphoto, GG III]

This is a group of bats we found at the old plantation of Nova Cuba, on Prìncipe. Currently recognized as Hipposideros ruber guineensis, they are thought to be a race of the red bat common on São Tomé but it would not surprise me if further analysis might prove them to be a distinct species.

Hipposideros ruber guineaeensis

Nova Cuba. Hipposideros ruber guineensis [Weckerphoto, GG III]

The photo below was taken by Wes during the day, on the ridge above Lagoa Amelia at about 1400 meters on São Tomé. Javier thinks it might be the endemic Hipposideros thomensis.

H. thomensis Lagoa Amelia

Hipposideros thomensis above Lagoa Amelia. [Weckerphoto, GG III]

A final note on spiders; two previous blogs this year have dealt with spiders we have found in gardens, one of which turned out to be an endemic species.  A few days ago, my colleague Angus Gascoigne of the Instituto Superior Politecnico sent me several photos of the spider below:

argiope1

Argiope orb weaver [Manuel Morais phot. 12/2011]

I took the photos in to our spider experts and they got quite excited.  It is an orb weaver of a widespread genus but “this one is really different!”  I suppose I should not be surprised, and Angus is collecting more as I write.

For all of you who observe them, Happy Holidays!

Here’s the Parting Shot:

parting

The Raison d’Etre!

PARTNERS

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, (GG I, II), the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bonfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe  and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who have made the last three 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, Sheila Farr Nielsen, Corinne W. Abel and Mr. and Mrs. John Sears.   Our expeditions can be supported by tax-free donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.

The Race: A New Species, Birds and Special Friends

Readers will recall our bryophyte expert, Jim Shevock, tireless companion on GG IV in 2010.  He is certainly one of the best field men I have met, and as I reported earlier, he collected around 700 specimens of mosses, hornworts and liverworts on São Tomé and Prìncipe.  The first fruit of his labors has just been published in the journal, Tropical Bryology; the description a new endemic species of moss from the island of São Tomé, a new species record for the island, and three new records for the country as a whole.

Jim with type

Jim Shevock with type of Porotrichum saotomense Enroth & Shevock- RCD phot.

The new species (of the Family Neckeraceae) is just the beginning.   Shevock and colleagues have another paper in press on the hornworts and liverworts (moss relatives) of the islands,  and the rest of the mosses are still being analyzed.  Jim expects many new species and records among this latter group, and all of this continues to show how rich and unique the biota of the islands is and at the same time, how poorly known.

Early readers of the blog will know that I only include experts on poorly-known groups of plants and animals on these expeditions. Thanks to the excellent doctoral work of Dr. Martim Melo, who employed molecular as well as morphological analysis, we know more about the birds of São Tomé and Prìncipe than any other vertebrate group and for that reason, we have never been accompanied by an ornithologist nor have I written much about them in this blog. That said, I must confess to being an unabashed birder of many years, a passionate bird “freak” with a life list that I keep on Facebook.

me birding

Birding on Principe – note puddle.  Desjardin phot.  GG III

The birds (avifauna) of these two islands are remarkable.  One of the commonest birds on São Tomé, even in the densely populated capital, is the endemic warbler, the São Tomé Prinia.  You cannot miss them and yet, I have never been able to photograph one– they just don’t stop moving!  So early in GG V I challenged my two colleagues, photographer Andrew Stanbridge and Poster Project Head, Velma Schnoll to take just one photograph of the critter.  Here are the results (bear in mind these were taken on the grounds of the Omali Lodge, the upscale hotel of our supporters, Africa’s Eden)—decide for yourselves who won:

Andrew Prinia

São Tomé Prinia,  Prinia molleri . A. Stanbridge phot GGV

velma's prinia

Prinia molleri – V. Schnoll phot  GG V

Martim Melo and his colleagues have suggested that, taken together, the islands of São Tomé and Prìncipe have, per unit area, the highest concentration of endemic (unique) species in the world!  Below is a simple comparison between the heavily studied Galapagos Islands with a surface area of 8,000 km2 and our islands with only 1/8th the size.

bird comparison

The comparison above only tells part of the story; the  twenty two species of endemic Galapagos birds are basically descended from but three lineages: the mockingbirds, the flightless cormorant and the famous Galapagos finches; this is not surprising, given the great distance between the archipelago and South America.  On the other hand, the endemic birds of São Tomé and Prìncipe are from all over the phylogenetic map: flycatchers, pigeons, weavers, sunbirds, warblers, etc. etc.  Moreover, some workers recognize up to seven endemic genera here.  Here are just a few:

forest weaver

São Tomé forest weaver, Ploceus sanctithomae. Weckerphoto GG III

Speirops

(l) Sao Tome Speirops, Zosterops lugubris; (r) Principe Speirops, Zosterops leucophaeus. RCD and J. Uyeda phots. GG III

Newtons sunbird

Newton’s sunbird, Anabathmis newtoni. Weckerphoto – GG III

thrush

Principe thrush, Turdus xanthorhychus.  J. Uyeda phot- GG II

P golden weaver

Principe golden weaver,  Ploceus princeps. Weckerphoto  GG III

There are many other spectacular endemics on both islands; I have mentioned the island phenomena of gigantism and dwarfism in earlier blogs.  São Tomé Island is also home to the world’s largest weaver (Ploceus grandis), the world’s largest sunbird (Dreptes thomensis) and the world’s smallest ibis (Bostrychia bocagei)!

Many people support our work in the islands, and as you know I acknowledge financial help at the end of each blog.  Still others are old friends who live on the islands through whom we work and who welcome and assist us on each expedition. These too have appeared many times in the blog and they include the people of the organization STeP UP, where it all started (Ned Seligman, Quintino Quade and Roberta dos Santos), and our friend, Sr. Arlindo Carvalho, Director General in the Ministry of the Environment.

Arlindo

Arlindo Carvalho, Ministry of the Environment.  A Stanbridge phot GG V

Dr. Carvalho told me that during the past year, he has shown this blog to delegates at a number of international meetings on Climate Change he has attended representing the Republic… a great honor for us.

GG V was unique in that it was dedicated to biodiversity awareness not pure science; because we were less in the bush and more in the inhabited areas, it led to our meeting some remarkable people who actually joined our efforts simply out curiosity about and interest in our activities.

eddie @ angolares

Velma Schnoll, Eddie Herbst and me at Angolares. A. Stanbridge phot. GG V

I first met Eddie Herbst at the Omali Lodge during GG IV where I gave one of my slide shows on island biodiversity.  Eddie was seriously interested in what we were doing at the time, and during GG V he actually joined us while we distributed our posters down the east coast of São Tomé (above).

But Eddie’s real job is senior pilot for Africa’s Connections, the small airlines that serves both islands and various mainland cities around the Gulf (he is also an ordained minister, but that is another story), and he is usually in the cockpit when we travel between the two islands.

Eddie Herbst

Eddie Herbst’s day job.   RCD phot GG V

During GG V, I asked Eddie if he could fly over a large mesa in the remote southwest corner of Príncipe, as I have always wanted to study the top and wondered about access routes.  I should mention that this is definitely not the usual approach route to the Prìncipe landing strip! To give you an idea of how rugged and difficult the southern part of the island is, below is a topographic image of this part of the island.

Bobke

Topo map of SW Principe. red and yellow dots on mesa.

as mesa

The mesa from the air.  RCD phot. GG V

And here is the view we got from Eddie’s flyover which, I might add, was an experience the other passengers will probably never forget!

On that same plane was a remarkable Portuguese couple, Frank and Ana. They were both fluent in English, warm and friendly, and we became friends almost immediately.

Frank and Ana

Ana and Frank on Principe.  RCD phot. GG V

Bear in mind that these two were full-paying guests at Bom Bom which is by far the most upscale and expensive venue on Prìncipe; yet rather than lying on the beach, or fishing or whatever,  Frank and Ana joined us each day as translators as we drove from school to school distributing our posters.  Through sheer good will and friendliness, they added greatly to the effectiveness of our small team.

F and A trans

Anna and Frank translating. A. Stanbridge phot.  GG V.

Believe it or not, also on Eddie’s plane was a fabulous lady named Marnie Saidi, also bound for Bom Bom Lodge  but not as a tourist.  Marnie is the new Project Manager for the Africa’s Eden Belo Monte project (which I will perhaps describe in another blog).  Like Frank and Ana, Marnie joined us for fun and acted as translator on our various daily tasks, including our meeting with the Regional President of Prìncipe, Toze Cassandra and the subsequent local television interview.

Marnie 2

Marnie Saidi translating during TV interview.  A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

Marnie 1

Marnie Saidi and Velma Schnoll, Principe primary school. A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

These serendipitous meetings were not limited to Prìncipe; during our final week on the big island we met a young Portuguese business man named Antonio Fernandes.  Just like Marnie, Frank and Ana, Fernando joined us on some of our longest poster trips during our last week… and I should mention he also had a functioning vehicle!. This is part of GG V I have not yet described.

antonio at ISP

Antonio, me and Quintino before ISP conference on Sao Tome.  A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

Antonio trans

Antonio translating at Sao Tome secondary school. A. Stanbridge phot. GG V.

Finally, individual personalities are very important on expeditions; a little friction now and then is to be expected but on a research expedition which is mostly out in the bush,  this matters somewhat less than on an expedition such as GG V.  We were in daily contact with the citizens, teachers, ministers and other government officials and each of us had to be goodwill ambassadors every hour of every day.

My colleagues on this trip, Velma Schnoll, who took over the poster project here in the States and brought it to completion, and Andrew Stanbridge, the world’s largest and sneakiest photographer were both exactly that and much  more.  They will be more than welcome back on the islands at any time.

at Monte Cafe

Andrew Stanbridge at Monte Café, Sao Tome.   RCD phot. GG V

me and velma

Velma Schnoll and me at Principe primary school.  A. Stanbridge phot. GG V

Here’s the parting shot:

parting shot

“Education is an act of love and courage.”  Principe Secondary School, A. Stanbridge phot.  GG V.

PARTNERS

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Barbero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the continued support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe  and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, 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 for helping make these expeditions possible.  Our expeditions can be supported by donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.