Category Archives: invertebrates

The Race: Nightmares, Explosions and Geographic Origins.

Before I get to expedition updates and cool biodiversity stuff, I must say I had recent cause to reflect on why I originally titled this blog, “Island Biodiversity Race.”  As you know, major changes are coming to the islands, and we are desperately trying to learn as much as we can about their unique fauna and flora before these changes occur.

Photo by Polly Anderson, June 24, 2010

This thing appeared off the dock of my friend Ned Seligman’s house in Sâo Tomé  town on June the 23rd.  So far as I know, it is still there; Ned and his people do not seem to be able to learn what a floating oil rig is doing there, who brought it, etc.  He emailed this image to me entitled, “Your Worst Nightmare.”

For blog newcomers, the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Sâo Tomé and Príncipe impinges on oil-bearing ocean floor, and the tiny island nation is in partnership with Nigeria to exploit these resources.

Exclusive economic zone of The Republic of Sao Tome and Principe.]

Without going into the record of environmental destruction associated with this industry, one can say at the very least that a large influx of wealth can be anticipated, along with the sorts of “development” activities that follow capital influx; and these activities almost always have a negative environmental effect.  That’s why we are in a race to find out what’s there, so that we can inform the citizens (and the world) of what they have.  Hopefully, when they have to make decisions down the road, they will have some knowledge of the potential environmental costs.

There are already plans on the big island for a deepwater harbor and a significant extension of the runway at the airport.  This is not rumor; on GG IV I spoke with several South Africans who are members of the group that is involved in these projects.

Aerial photo of Laguna Azul by Joacquim Wirth, 2010

In my view, a truly distressing plan is that of a different South African development group for Laguna Azul, one of the most beautiful and accessible sites on the big island.  This cove on the northwest part of Sâo Tomé not far from the captol is as its name suggests, famous its beauty.  It is the only spot on the islands where the baobab tree is found (Adansonia digitata), and I have watched Sao Tomean families picnic there.   My understanding is that this development group plans to reroute the main road away from Laguna Azul, then construct properties and sell them off as kind of a gated community.

A Sao Tomean Picnic at Laguna Azul [Weckerphoto, GG III]

There are rather frightening rumors about how permission for this project was obtained but as they are rumors only, I will not repeat them here.

Time for critter news.  A few weeks ago, our entomology department sent off the specimens from our millipede transacts to Dr. Rowland Shelley of the North Carolina State Museum. Recall that he had kindly agreed to try to identify them for us.  He has a wonderful website on myriapods: http://www.nadiplochilo.com/milli.html So far as we know, only one short paper on the island millipedes has been published; curiously, this paper, written in 1993, was based on a small collection made on the road to São Nicolau in the vicinity of Nova Moca, where our biologist friend Ricardo Lima lives. By chance our first GG IV millipedes came from nearly the same spot, under a log shared with a cobra bobo (Schistometopum thomense)!

Ricardo Lima at Nova Moca with cobra bobo from under our first millipede log. [ R Ayres phot.  GGIV]

Over the month, we collected millipedes in ten different locations ranging in elevation from sea level to 500+ m on Príncipe (first collections ever?) and 1500 m on Sâo Tomé.  Dr. Shelley sent me a preliminary report that in his opinion, our specimens included at least one undescribed species from the big island and perhaps two from Príncipe.  This is not surprising news, given what we have been finding over the past ten years, but what is really exciting is the fact that Dr. Shelley believes all our six + species of millipedes belong to the same family (Spirostreptidae) and genus, Globanus!  This lack of taxonomic diversity might seem disappointing but it is not; in fact, it is rather intriguing.  We may be learning more from what is not present, than what is.  The specimens are now going to Dr. Didier Van den Spiegel of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium,  a specialist on African myriapods.  If Dr. Shelley’s preliminary identifications are confirmed by Dr. Van den Spiegel, the modern oceanic island  millipede fauna may be a result of what is known as a “species explosion,” or a “species swarm.”

A Spirostreptid millipede from the Grenadines [M. de Silva phot.]

Imagine an “ancestral” form of Globanus somehow reaching (by raft?) Príncipe and/or Sâo Tomé at a time when the islands were devoid of any other millipedes.  Such a situation would present lots of empty niches into which, in the absence of any competition, the ancestral lineage would radiate, perhaps explosively.. Nature abhors a vacuum! A widely used example of this phenomenon is the swarms of different species of cichlid fishes in Lake Tanganyika, all descendants from a single colonizing species.

Species swarms have apparently occurred on other Atlantic islands, Madeira being a prime example, with earwigs (Perirrhytus), true bugs (Chinacapsus), nine species of the beetle genus, Trechus and a woodlouse genus, Procellio.

Non Gulf of Guinea Earthworm. photo-Kent Simmons from www.]

Another update:  samples of earthworms collected on Sâo Tomé in 2002 by my colleage, Dr. John Measey, of the South African National Biological Institute were sent to Dr. Csaba Csuzdi, a Hungarian oligochaete specialist in Budapest (one of the things John Measey studies is what caecilians eat).  Several years later, Dr. Csuzdi, using both his own and John’s specimens, published a comprehensive treatment of the earthworms of Sâo Tomé, recognizing 18 species.  Six of these (33%) are endemic to the island, and all six of them belong to the same genus, Dichogaster. As one might predict, all six of the endemics are high elevation species, which suggests they are present in habitats up and out of the reach of the 500 years of agricultural activities. Conversely, all of the widespread non-endemic species appear to be confined to the cultivated lowlands.  All of this suggests that the six endemic earthworms are the result of a species swarm or explosion.  Currently, we know less about the millipede fauna but what we do know suggests they may a species swarm as well.

Dr. Tom Daniel with first ST & P holosaprophyte, Rio Papagaio, Principe [RCD phot. GG IV]

In the May blog, I reported that we had found the first saprophytic plant on Sâo Tomé and Príncipe; Sciaphila ledermanni is a very rare plant indeed, and Dr. Tom Daniel’s publication on the discovery will soon be published. Saprophytes are plants that lack chlorophyll and, in this case, depend on fungi to provide sustenance from dead or decaying matter.  S. ledermannii is otherwise known only from Nigeria and Cameroon, well to the north of our islands; our discovery of this plant along two small rivers on Príncipe is intriguing, in part because of the possibility of the Niger River as its colonization pathway.

Giant Dispersal Raft, with Burrowing Endemics. [art by R. E. Cook, D. Lin phots, GG II] ]

In an much blog I discussed how my colleagues and I hypothesized that the most likely explanation for how the ancestors of the current endemic species colonized the islands was by rafting; our reasoning is based on a combination of the existence of the the two huge rivers that enter the Gulf (the Congo and Niger), the directions of the main oceanic currents in the Gulf (probably unchanged since the Cretaceous) and the fact that surface salinity drops significantly during rainy periods.

The inset in the image of the raft above includes pictures of the endemic burrowing reptiles and amphibian found only on the islands; these species do not swim or climb trees, their presence strengthens our large floating raft hypothesis.   In this 2007 publication, we did not suggest one river or the other as being the likely dispersal pathway to the islands; we just presented the evidence that either was possible.  In the case of our newly found Sciaphila, it would seem that the Niger region might be the most likely source area for this species.

An old friend of mine, Angus Gascoigne, just sent me a series of emails regarding another species with a distribution that is also very suggestive of the region of origin.

Angus Gascoigne, Contador Valley, Sao Tome. [RCD  phot. GGI]

Angus first came to the islands as an English volunteer (VSO), then worked for many years as chief technician for the Voice of America in Sâo Tomé. He currently teaches at the Instituto Superior Politecnico and is a lead biologist for ABS, the new association of Sao Tome biologists. He is a gifted naturalist, has lived on Sâo Tomé for over 20 years and published on everything from snails to Begonias.

Sao Tome Whip Spider. [J. Uyeda phot. GG II]

Angus wrote of finding a whip spider, or amblypygid, in the garden of his home in the town of Trinidade on Sâo Tomé.  To some, whip spiders might be the source of nightmares, looking vaguely like flattened, fast-moving spiders or scorpions. In fact, they are neither; they have their own order within the arachnids, the Amblypygi.  They are non-venomous, usually nocturnal predators on other arthropods . We herpetologists do a lot of work at night, and we have encountered them fairly frequently on rock walls, and bridges on Sâo Tomé.

[Sao Tome Whip Spider, waterfall en route Sao Nicolau. [J. Uyeda phot. GG III]

Angus and his colleague, Hugulay Maia, also of the ABS, have begun a study of these odd creatures, and they inform us there are two species known from the islands so far: Charinus africanus, which is considered an endemic to all three oceanic islands, and Damon tibialis. D. tibialis is currently known only from Sâo Tomé, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Angola, near the mouth of the Congo River.

Contador Valley Whip Spiders. [D. Lin phot. GG I]

As we must always bear in mind, it is quite possible that D. tibialis was inadvertently brought to the island by the Portuguese, and we cannot know for certain until we can look at their genetics.  But assuming this whip spider got to the island by natural dispersal, its current distribution might represent an example of the Congo as a source path as opposed to the Niger.

Two Possible Distribution Pathways. [C. Pfeiffer construct; RCD GG IV and J. Uyeda GG II phots]

Another possible Niger contribution is the ancestor of Africa’s largest treefrog, Leptopelis palmatus, found only on Príncipe.  It’s distribution and that of its presumed closest relative is pictured below.

Leptopelis palmatus and L. macrotis Distributions. [L. Scheinberg constr.]

I have little doubt that both major rivers have contributed to the founding populations of the marvelous endemic biota of the Republic of Sâo Tomé and Príncipe.

Before signing off, here is an update on our opening “nightmare” image, sent by our friend Polly Anderson, who took the photo.  I just received it as I was concluding this posting.

We met some guys at Pestana hotel on Friday. They work on the big oil rig in the bay, but surprise – its not an oil rig! It’s the same platform, but there are 2 cranes on it instead. Apparently it is resupplying here and waiting for the arrival of its crew. The guys were flown in here and then will go to the rig and on the 10th it is leaving for Luanda. The rig is going to lay pipes underground in the ocean for BP off the coast of Angola. It has nothing to do with São Tomé, it was just hanging out here to get supplies and its crew

The Parting Shot:

An Endemic Bird Nightmare at Nova Moca [R. Ayres phot. GG IV]

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 Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden 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, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor for helping make these expeditions possible. Tax-deductable donations can be made to “CAS-Gulf of Guinea Fund.

The Race: GG IV– The Second Week

OK, first an update on our special “questing beasts”: last weekend after Roberta Ayres, our education officer, finally arrived, we had a traditional Sao Tome dinner at Nova Moca, a former plantation high on the eastern slopes of the mountain. This is where Ricardo Lima lives, our graduate student colleague who first brought my attention to the supposedly endemic Sao Tome shrew and our mystery “charroco,” the fish that does not appear on our fish checklist.

Roberta Ayers at Nova Moca (Ricardo Lima in back). RCD phot. GG IV

Ricardo gave me the preserved shrew he had already caught, a piece of its tail preserved separately, and the tail of a second shrew, removed by machete by one of Ricardo’s assistants (I should add that shrews are mean critters to handle, and some species have a toxic bite)… the rest of the shrew escaped. Again, we are anxious to test the DNA of this species to see if it is in fact a real endemic or was brought to the islands recently (like during the last 500 years of Portuguese comings and goings). We are unsure of what preservative Ricardo used for the material (he doesn’t remember), so we will be uncertain as to the value of what we already have until we get back to the lab. But I have left a couple of liters of 85% with him, so we know we will get DNA from the next shrew that is encountered


Millipede from Bom Sucesso. RCD phot. GG IV

Another questing beast is the millipede. To our knowledge, this group (the myriapods) has not been sampled on the islands, and our colleague at North Carolina State Museum, Dr. Rowland Shelley (a specialist on the group) expressed doubt that there was much present. Sure enough, almost the first log we turned over had a bunch of them underneath, and we also have a sample from 1100 m higher (including the above). Obviously we will search many more localities, both here and on Principe. I must also add that it is wonderful to have an expert colleague willing to examine stuff like this and give us some answers… the Academy has a lot of experts, but we don’t do everything.

The botany guys, Tom and Jim are doing wondrous things:

Pico Cavalio from the north. T. Daniel phot.GG IV

The picture above is of Pico Cavalio, one that must be climbed en route to the ultimate Pico de Sao Tome at 2,000 meters. This one is a brute and our guys have collected the top of it. So far, this is the highest locality that any of our expedition members has ever reached at 1566m. Also, the guys have found a bunch of new trails through really good forest that earlier teams missed, especially around Lagoa Amelia (in earlier blogs)– some of the results have been pretty spectacular.

Begonia macambrarensis, A Sao Tome endemic. T. Daniel phot. GG IV

This yellow begonia is known only from Sao Tome, and Tom and Jim found it on the way up to Pico Cavalio. This is our first collection of this endemic and quite exciting.


Brachystephanus occidentalis 2 more to go! T. Daniel phot.GG IV

Although the begonia is exquisite, Tom got even more excited about the critter above. Tom just published a monograph of the Acanthaceae of Sao Tome and Principe. By the end of GG III, he had found all but three of the endemic species present on the islands – now the list is down to two! And we have tissue samples for comparison with members oft his family on the mainland and other parts of the world.

Jim Shevock is in “seventh heaven;” he is up to 400 collections. Many of you don’t know Jim yet (he is new to the CAS faculty)—Jim is not only tireless, but totally ebullient! Nothing bothers him (and Tom and I have been trying!)


Jim Shevock collecting new trail. T. Daniel phot.GG IV

One of the real pleasures of leading these expeditions is learning how differently we do the same thing—collecting and preparing specimens. Collecting for Jim just looks like scraping away at rocks, or tree trunks and other substrates (of course, you have to know where to look, and that can take many years). And basically that is what he is doing.. However, the way he prepares his collections is really different.

Jim with prepared specimens of Leucobryum RCD phot. GG IV

Jim does not press plants like Tom does—the stuff Jim collects is already pretty flat! Instead, he has special archival paper which has, already printed on each sheet, a table that includes blanks for the number of the specimen as well as for the whole range of possible environmental conditions under which the specimen was collected. He fills out the blanks (duplicates everything on the computer, of course), then folds the specimen into the paper in such a way that each packet stands up while the specimen is drying within. Our room (all 3 of us together) frequently looks like a major regatta on San Francisco Bay.


Regatta in room #10. RCD phot. GG IV

It is probably obvious to anyone reading this that we could not do any of this work without approval from the authorities, especially the Ministry of the Environment. The Director is Arlindo Carvalho, a delightful man. One of the other gentlemen with whom we work is Vitor Bonfim, who is head of Conservation on the islands. I am including a picture of Vitor because his nephew is a FaceBook friend of mine.. a student in Los Angeles!


While the guys are having all this fun, Roberta Ayers and I have been pursuing the education proposal/dream/idea. We have had an amazing series of meetings with all sorts of people here on the islands; it is my intention that whatever we come up with will have the enthusiasm of the citizens at all levels.


Roberta Ayres and Roberta dos Santos. Omali Lodge. RCD phot GG

A very dear old friend of mine is Roberta dos Santos. Roberta works with Ned Seligman in his NGO, STeP UP. In fact, Ned met Roberta when he was running the Peace Corps here, years ago. But more than that, she has been in education her entire life and her degree (in education) is from the US. (Imagine a young girl born and raised on Sao Tome—on the Equator—landing in Buffalo, New York in mid January!) We have contracted with Roberta to assist our CAS Roberta set up meetings, etc. And Roberta knows absolutely everybody. The “Dos Robertas” are a wonderful team. Our CAS Roberta has the perfect personality as well as the educational know-how for what we are trying to accomplish, and I am much impressed. She “gets it,” and is fun.

After some panicky moments yesterday, our flights to Principe, the much older, smaller island, have been confirmed. I must confess I will be glad to get back out into the field. While I do have this dream for raising awareness of the unique biodiversity here, I really am a bush guy at heart, and meetings pale in comparison to stomping around in forests and swamps. CAS Roberta has all she needs to carry on during the week we are gone and is totally comfortable. Tom, Jim and I take off on Sunday and will return a week later, after Roberta has flown home. With fingers crossed, we are off to see if “cobra bobo” exists on Principe.

The Parting Shot:


Dinner at Nova Moc. Ricardo Lima and RCD. T. Daniel phot. GG IV

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 Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden 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 and Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor for helping make these expeditions possible. Our work can be supported by donations to CAS, Gulf of Guinea Fund

The Race: GG IV – Return to Paradise

Having just returned from Ethiopia, I am now “gearing up” for GG IV.  If all goes well, we will be returning to the islands on the 19th of February for a month, thanks especially to continuing logistical support from our partner, Africa’s Eden (SCD), and the generosity of friends (see Partners below).

GG IV will be one of the smaller expeditions (four of us), due in part to financial constraints, but also because I have a particular, non-exploration focus in mind.  But first the GG IV players:

Dr. Tom Daniel, is returning with us; as I mentioned in the last blog, he has just published a major paper on the island shrimp plants (his specialty) and along with more botanical exploring will be doing some technical pollination studies this time.

Dr. Tom Daniel on Sao Tome. RCD phot, GG III

Among our plans is a survey of the top of Pico do São Tomé which is at about 2000 m.  None our previous expedition members has ever sampled the Pico so everything will be of interest, but our one of our special goals is to collect examples of Afrocarpus mannii, which is endemic to this mountain.

Afrocarpus mannii  WWW. photo

This tree is a member of the yellow wood family (Podocarpaceae), and it is thought that all of its nearest relatives are found thousands of kilometers away in the East African highlands.

Distribution of Afrocarpus relatives. RCD construct.

This strange distribution pattern is showing up rather frequently in the various sorts of organisms we study (for instance, my frogs and reptiles) so we are always interested in testing these relationships using DNA technology; i.e., if these species are really closest relatives, what are they doing thousands of kilometers apart?

Dr. Shevock in Yunnan, China. Phot. D. Long – 2007

This is Dr. Jim Shevock, who recently joined the Academy faculty.  Jim is one of the world’s foremost authorities on mosses. His latest book came out only a few weeks ago.

California Mosses. 2009. Micro-optics, New Zealand

Jim will be conducting the first comprehensive moss survey of São Tomé and Príncipe.

Dr. Shevock drying moss specimens.  Phot. A. Colwell, 2009

Recall that when our expeditions began back in 2001, there were only four species of mushrooms known from the islands; as a result of GG II and III, Drs. Desjardin and Perry have identified some 225 species, including new ones.  Phallus drewesii, an endemic to São Tomé, was just described in August.  I have a strong suspicion that Jim Shevock is going to come up with similar surprises.

The other critter work will include hooking up with Jose Lima to obtain more shrew specimens and to find and identify the mysterious Charroco, the fish we missed on earlier expeditions and which is thus absent from the islands  list.  Jose is doing the research for his PhD with the University of Lancaster. Jose “rediscovered” the supposedly rare, possibly endemic São Tomé shrew, Crocidura thomensis.  It is certainly not rare; as so often is the case, one just has to know where to look. Ricardo does.  We have permission to collect a few and test their tissues to see if they are in fact true endemics, or whether they were brought to the islands via human activity.

“Cobra bobo” endemic to São Tomé.  Phot. J. Juste

You will recognize this as the flamboyant caecilian, Schistometopum thomense or “cobra bobo,” known only from São Tomé.  The photo was taken many years ago by my friend and colleague, Dr. Javier Juste of the Doñana Institute in Seville in Spain. Javier thinks he may actually have taken this photo on São Tomé, but he is sure that he has seen caecilians on Príncipe Id!  This would be most exciting, and of course we will be looking for it.

And now that we have found a myriapod (millipede) expert, Dr. Rowland Shelley of the North Carolina State Museum (see November post), we will be collecting these critters as well, and I have no doubt that this group will turn out to be as poorly known as the others…. More surprises in store.

A myriapod (millipede). www phot.

Now for the special focus.  I have long thought that the citizens of the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe need to be aware how absolutely unique and special their islands really are.  My groups of scientists and I can continue to explore and conduct research and make neat scientific discoveries.  We can continue to publish scientific papers, and we even add Portuguese abstracts.  But while this is great for “Science”, the majority of Tomeans will never see these papers. This popular blog has been an attempt to “spread the word”, but the vast majority of the people there do not read English, and most certainly do not have computers.  What good does all of our work and discoveries do if the citizens who live there are remain unaware of how special their islands are?  For example, Martim Melo, an outstanding ornithologist and expert on the birds fauna of the islands has just established the fact that the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, together, have the highest concentration of endemic bird species in the world!  I doubt if anyone on the islands knows this fact, and think of what such a statement might mean to tourism!  The people should know and be proud of the unique nature of their nation, especially because they will have hard decisions to make in the future, if and when the oil revenues come… that is why this blog is called the Island Biodiversity Race (go back to the first two postings, if you need to) – there is a real urgency to what we are doing.

So above and beyond our usual critter searches, I am going to spend a significant part of our time during GG IV meeting with various people who are involved in appropriate government ministries, education, tourism and the environment,  in order to come up with ideas for a multi-level educational program.  We hope to learn what the citizens want and need in this regard.  This is where the fourth member of GG IV comes in: Mrs. Roberta Ayres.

Roberta Ayres (left) in the Naturalist Center, CAS.  RCD phot. 2010

Roberta is Manager and Senior Educator of the Naturalist Center, which is a major part of the Koret-Taub Education Center of the Academy.  Roberta has a Master’s degree in science education and, having been born in Brazil, speaks fluent Portuguese.  Together, Roberta and I hope to learn how we can raise biodiversity awareness on the islands through our meetings and interviews with its citizens.

The California Academy of Sciences Naturalist Center. RCD phot. 2010

Barring technical or other problems, I plan to keep blogging from the islands.

The parting shot:

“Island Tranquility”- Laguna Azul, on Sao Tome. D. Lin phot. GGII

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 Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden 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 and Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor for helping make these expeditions possible.

The Race: On Tiny Skinks and Contemplating GG IV

It is the holiday season in this part of the world, and the California Academy of Sciences (where most of us island biologists work) is absolutely packed.  I thought I would share a few images of our public floors.  We scientists and our collections and laboratories are behind the scenes in an off-limits wing, and I would bet that a lot of our public visitors still do not realize we do science here; last year we had 2.3 million of them from all over the world.

Visitors waiting at the front entrance, (12:30 PM, Dec. 30th, 2009- RCD)

The Rainforest exhibit – RCD photo.

Waiting to enter the Rainforest RCD-photo.

Our albino alligator Claude’s swamp,  central courtyard. RCD phot.

So if it is the holiday season, why am I here in the lab?  Part of the answer is that I am planning our next expedition, GG IV. A small group of us are going back to the islands in February with several rather specific missions… I will describe our plans in the next blog.  Meantime, here are some updates:

Dr. Tom Daniel’s publication with Estrela Figueirido on the Acanth flowers of São Tomé and Príncipe was just published today, and we are taking copies over to islands with us.  As usual, we have provided an abstract in Portuguese.

Figure 3  from the new paper (T. Daniel composite).

Afroablepharis on Sao Tome – D Lin phot-GG II

Above is a leaf litter skink called Afroablepharis. Until we started working on the island fauna, both islands were thought to be inhabited by the same species (then called Panaspis africanus).  We provided tissue samples of some of our GGI material from both islands to colleagues at the University of Madeira. Dr. Jose Jesus and his colleagues found that the two populations were genetically distinct and that each island had its own, separate species.

On-going island projects (RCD construct)

Unfortunately, all of the original specimens from which tissues were taken were subsequently lost in the international mail and were never returned to the Academy.  Since we still have additional preserved skinks from the same localities on both islands, my Research Assistant, Lauren Scheinberg (left, above), is carefully examining all of them to find the physical differences we would usually (but not always) expect to find in two species distinct from one another. We are now formally collaborating with Dr. Jesus and his Madeira team.

Above, on the right, is Lisette, who is still working on the jita snakes (earlier blogs), and this has also expanded into a much larger project with several international collaborators and samples from mainland Africa.  The shrew comparison on the lower left is one of our goals for GG IV. We will meet up with Ricardo Lima on São Tomé, the man who rediscovered this unlikely creature.

More detail on GG IV when I return from Ethiopia.

Here’s the parting shot:

Principe Golden Weaver, Ploceus princeps.  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, 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 Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden 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 and Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III for helping make these expeditions possible.

The Race: Critter and People Updates

It has been a busy couple of months, hence no posts on THE RACE.  In my last one, I hope I made it clear that scientists have senses of humor (my favorite ones do, anyway).  Here’s another fact you might not know; regardless of what he or she studies, there is probably not a single field biologist anywhere who does not have a secret dislike or even fear of one sort of critter or another.  With me, it has always been centipedes– even when I was a child.  I can’t bear the things!  And, naturally, there are some real monsters common on São Tomé.  The creatures in the shots below are about 10 inches long, sometimes they get larger!

Scolopendra subspinipes. D. Lin phot. GG II

S. subspinipes – Weckerphoto, GG III

These arthropods are more properly known as scolopendras, and they are voracious predators; the upper one is devouring a slug.  The two above are Scolopendra subspinipes, are native to Southeast Asia and thought to have been brought to the islands accidentally.  The Academy was just visited by Dr. Rowland Shelley, a specialist on millipedes from the North Carolina State Museum, who had a look at some of our critters.  He and his colleague, Dr. John Lewis of the UK identified these but, more exciting, the one pictured below.

Otostigmus productus DLin phot- GG II

This is a different species that was originally described from São Tomé over 120 years ago.  It is thought to also occur in West Africa; if this is the case, O. productus  is not an endemic species but it is probably naturally occurring.

Photo shoot on Sao Tome. Dong Lin, Fabio Penny and Ricka Stoelting -RCD GGI

Ricka Stoelting (above at right), my grad student and GG I participant, is putting the finishing touches on her manuscript on the fabulous São Tomé, “cobra bobo.” After submitting it for publication, she will pursue her PhD at the University of Wisconsin.

Schistometopum thomense – Weckerphoto, GG III

Ricka’s research has shown that this remarkable legless amphibian, Schistometopum thomense is indeed a true endemic species, having gotten to the island by natural means.  By studying the genetics of these bright yellow burrowers, she has learned that there are two different genetic groupings of the caecilian on the island and this is possibly related to volcanic activity within the last million years.

Principe Jita. Lamprophis sp. Weckerphoto GG III

Our snake project on “cobra jita” (Lamprophis – see earlier blogs) is ongoing; my intern, Lisette Arellano (below) has returned from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is working down in our molecular lab as I write.  Last summer we learned that although they are very similar in appearance, the snakes on São Tomé and Príncipe are genetically distinct from one another based on Lisette’s analysis of the cytochrome b geneWe think that analysis of an additional nuclear gene will be useful.

Lisette Arellano at the Academy.  RCD

The big issue lies with the status of jita’s relatives on the mainland.  While we are now reasonably sure that the two island populations are separate species, we do not know what their relationships are to the at least 12 species of Lamprophis distributed widely in Africa; it is possible that either or both of our island snakes could belong to one these mainland species. Unfortunately  the relationships (systematics) of this whole group in Africa are poorly understood.  Dr. Chris Kelly of Rhodes University who is working on the entire complex has kindly sent us a number of tissue samples of Lamprophis from some West African localities, and these are what Lisette is analyzing now.  In June, Lisette is off to the University of Colorado to pursue her PhD.  Hopefully, we will have figured out our island snakes by then.

Dana Carrison off Principe.  Pola-Perez phot.  GG III B

Dana Carrison is an MSc candidate at San Francisco State University and was part of marine phase of GG III (see Send In the Marines).  She is the graduate student of Dr. Bob Van Syoc, a participant of both GG II and III marine expeditions.  Dana is nearing completion of her research on the barnacles she and Bob study and has this to say:

“The Gulf of Guinea II and III expeditions have led to the discovery of two new species of symbiotic barnacle of the genus, Conopea, originally described from the Straits of Gibraltar by Ellis in 1758. I have been using molecular and morphological methods to describe these new species and compare them with their closest barnacle relatives. I have also been comparing species of gorgonian coral with species of barnacle to see if there’s any sort of settling preference. So far I think that one of the new species of barnacle is found only on a singe species of gorgonian and the other is not.”

I should mention that the gorgonians to which Dana refers are studied by Dr. Gary Williams, also a Gulf of Guinea veteran of two expeditions.  Here are Dana’s new species:

Conopea new species #1   phot. D. Carrison

Conopea new species #2  D. Carrison phot

More anon and before our return to the islands.

Here’s the parting shot:

Chaplin, Executive Director, BomBom 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, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) 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 Bardero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, and the continued support of Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden 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 and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami for helping make these expeditions possible.

 

The Race: Return of the Marines Redux!

I have just heard that Alex Kim, the student at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Virginia has received the new freshwater prawns GG III (B) collected for him and is in the process of extracting DNA from the fresh tissues. As I mentioned in the last couple of blogs, Alex is a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, and we are very interested in his progress.  His results will add to our understanding of our own work and the biodiversity of these islands.  When Alex first contacted me, I had some concern that we might have neglected to bring prawns back with us from GG I and II.  We had, of course, and Alex has been studying some of the preserved specimens er brought to him in December.  Just yesterday I found an image of Dr. Tomio Iwamoto carefully processing these some of these same prawn specimens in 2006 on São Tomé (during GG II). This will give you an idea of the size of the critters Alex is studying (although there are two species on the islands – I am not sure which one this is!)

 

Tomio Iwamoto on Sao Tome.   RCD phot. GG II

The marine biologists of GG III (B) are busily sorting through their material, and I thought an early update was in order.   In the last blog I mentioned that the Dr. Williams had done very well with his octocorals (also known as gorgonians or sea fans), and so had Dr. Van Syoc and Dana Carrison with their barnacles. Dana is Bob Van Syoc’s graduate student at San Francisco State University.

 

Dana Carrison during a more northerly field trip. NOAA photo  

Bob Van Syoc found an undescribed barnacle species on São Tomé during GG II, and it appears that Dana has now confirmed this for Príncipe as well.  And there may well be other new barnacle species; it is just too soon to tell.  Dana is studying the relationship between these barnacles and Dr. Williams’ sea fans.  This is an obligate relationship – some species of sea fans are always found in association with certain species of barnacles.

 The barnacle Conopea calceola on a gorgonian.  D. Carrison phot. GG III

Note that the barnacle settles on the gorgonian, and the gorgonian’s tissue (red, in this case) grows up around it.  Along with describing new species and adding to our island biodiversity list, Dana is testing the hypothesis that the different species of barnacles have a preference for certain species of gorgonian upon which to settle. Dana got about 30 different Príncipe barnacles but has not yet begun identifying them or comparing them to the GG II barnacles collected in São Tomé.  Also included in her collections are at least three different gorgonians and their associated barnacles that were not collected previously by the Academy expeditions.

 

  Undescribed species of Conopea on a different species of gorgonian.  D. Carrison phot. GG III

New barnacle species or the relationships of freshwater prawns may not sound exciting to you.  In our biodiversity race, we are studying everything we can, as biodiversity is the sum of all living species in a given area; thus, everything is important as a measure of the uniqueness and past history of these ancient islands.  Think of our mushroom work: before we started, there were only four species known from São Tomé and none from Príncipe; now the people of the islands know that there are at least 220 species, many of them undescribed and unexpected.  The same is true for the ant lions I have documented earlier, and I fully expect similar results when analysis of our collections of diatoms and spiders are completed.  The story of biodiversity can never be told by the study of furred and feathers critters alone. 

Here’s the parting shot:  

 

Incipient Dr. Uyeda with collecting party, Nova Cuba, 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, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) 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 Bardero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, and the continued support of Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murkami for helping make these expeditions possible.   

The Race: Return of the Marines!

 This is a brief update on the return of our people last weekend from Gulf of Guinea III (B). They were the marine component of the 2008-2009 expeditions (see Send in the Marines).  The focus of four of the group was the waters of Príncipe, the much older of the two islands.  The two fish people, Dr. John McCosker and David Catania went a week earlier to dive in São Tomé; neither had been to the islands before, and much of our earlier fish work was freshwater in nature. After the second group of four arrived, the whole expedition flew to Príncipe courtesy of SCD, one of our main sponsors (see “Partners,” below).   

As I posted earlier, our first nudibranch (sea slugs) specialist, Dr. Marta Pola-Perez, was on the GG III (B) expedition.  Below are photos of a few of the critters she found.

A possible new species of Phidiana, Principe. Pola-Perez phot. GG III

Flabelina arveloi, Principe.  Pola-Perez phot. GG III

 

Hypselodoris bilineata, Principe. Pola-Perez phot. GG III

As I wrote before, Dr. Bob Van Syoc, his graduate student, Dana Carrison and Dr. Gary Williams are looking at corals and barnacles and the association between the two life forms.  Dana’s dissertation topic concerns the relationship between what we think is a new species of barnacle and one of Gary’s octocorals (sea fans). 

  

A Sao Tome sea fan (Eunicella). G. Williams phot. GG III

This group did quite well on Príncipe; Bob and Dana collected a barnacle species previously known only from the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, Megabalanus azoricus, thus adding to the island diversity list.  Gary thinks he has now collected more species of octocorals in São Tomé and Príncipe than are found on the Galapagos Islands. 

 

Grad student, Dana Carrison, with sea fan on Principe. B. Van Syoc phot. GG III

 Dana, Gary Williams and John McCosker, Principe. B. Van Syoc phot. GG III

Of particular interest is that Bob found a species of shore barnacle at Bom Bom on Príncipe otherwise known only from South Africa. He thinks it was probably brought in by barge carrying building supplies.  So far it seems to be confined to the vicinity of the Bom Bom pier. 

 

Bom Bom pier at night, Principe. Weckerphoto GGIII

John and Dave also well.  Although they said the diving was “spotty” they did manage to sample a bunch of neat stuff, including at least one definite new species. 

A new species of Serranus from both islands.  D. Catania phot. GG III 

Ichthyologists frequently find new species just by exploring fish markets.  Below is a pot of jacks for sale which John and Dave cannot identify to species.  They will need to compare the DNA of these fishmarket critters with other known species in the genus.

Unidentified species of Caranx in the fishmarket.  J. McCosker phot. GG III

As I have written before, another way for ichthyologists to sample the marine fauna is to get permission to buy odd specimens directly from beach seiners.

 

 Sao Tome beach seine. J. McCosker phot. GG III] 

This group was fishing in the bay near Omali Lodge (Marlin Beach Hotel), and like Dr. Iwamoto did during GG I,  John and Dave dealt directly with the seiners for unique specimens.  Detirmining the identity of all of this material takes a great deal of time, but for now it looks as though the Marines of GG III (B) did quite well. 

I received some great news while the group was gone. Recall that I mentioned the marine group was going to collect some freshwater prawns for DNA work in a project by high school student Alex Kim in Virginia.  Well, the group got the prawns and by now they are back east being investigated by Alex and his mentor from George Mason University, Prof. Patrick Gillevet.  But the great news is that Alex is one of 40 finalists in the INTEL SCIENCE TALENT SEARCH; his project and scholarship are obviously gaining recognition, and we at the Academy are proud to be able to help out.

Alex has his own website: http://amphidrome.wordpress.com/  

Here’s the parting shot:  

  

Growing up on Principe. R. Wenk photo. 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, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) 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 Bardero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, and the continued support of Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami for helping make these expeditions possible.        

The Race: Within the House of Slytherin (I. Lizards)

Our race to discover and describe the unique fauna and flora of São Tomé and Príncipe continues, and the six members of Gulf of Guinea Expedition III (B) are diving in the ancient waters of Príncipe as I write; they return to the Academy next week.  As I wrote earlier, Marta is sampling the sea slug fauna (nudibranchs), Gary, Bob and Dana are looking at coral and barnacles, having found a new species of the latter in waters off São Tomé during GG II, and John and David are looking at small marine fish, with emphasis on eels.  The group has an added goal, and that is to bring back some freshwater prawns (Macrobrachium) that abound in the São Tomé rivers. These specimens are for a young high school student named Alex Kim.

  

 A freshwater Macrobrachium prawn from Guinea (www.)

Alex is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Virginia.  He is doing an ambitious biogeography project on these prawns, relatives of which are found on both sides of the Atlantic.  Alex contacted me through this blog—you can read his comments at the end the November posting.  During a brief visit to DC over the holidays, I brought some preserved specimens we collected in GG I and GG II which I handed over to one of his advisors, Dr. Patrick Gillevet of George Mason University, and now the GG III (B) group plans to bring him some fresh material for DNA studies.  This is really fun academic stuff, and we are delighted to have the involvement of a young colleague.

 

 A Macrobrachium prawn from Cameroon. (www) 

Except for documenting our exciting hunt for Príncipe Jita, (see first May posting), I have not written that much about the endemic reptiles of these islands; in fact, there are quite a few of them, some rather spectacular.  While reptiles, especially geckos and skinks, are much better dispersers over saltwater than amphibians, snakes are not particularly good at it; moreover, like the amphibian caecilian, cobra bobo, a number of these endemics are legless species.  There are also some island species that may be endemic, but we are not sure…. we just haven’t studied them closely enough yet. In this posting I will show you the unique lizard species.  One readily identifiable endemic species is Greeff’s gecko, or the Giant gecko, Hemidactylus greeffii.  

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Greeff’s Gecko, Hemidactylus greeffii . A Sao Tome specimen. RCD phot. GG I   

Greeff’s gecko is an island giant; it is evidently much larger than other African member of the genus (and there are over 55 African taxa of Hemidactylus with likely many more to be discovered). Our longest specimen is over 200 mm in total length (including original tail); but longer specimens are known.  This gecko is not only very large it also differs from all of its African relatives in lacking a claw on the first (inner) finger and first toe. Somehow, this feature has been lost during the thousands, perhaps millions of years of isolation on the Gulf of Guinea Islands. Greeff’s gecko also has greenish eyes, which also distinguishes it from other nocturnal geckos on the island which, so far as we know, are not endemics.

 

 H. greeffii.  Note absence of claw on first thumb. ST specimen. RCD phot. GGI

 

H. greeffii with  greenish eyes.  ST specimen. D. Lin phot. GG II.

Greeff’s gecko occurs on both São Tomé and Príncipe; at least we think it does. Here’s what I mean: specimens from both islands look very much the same but a couple of years ago, a group of researchers from the University of Madeira and Portugal looked at the DNA of specimens from both islands and found that data from mitochondrial DNA suggested the two populations were very different, and that they may well be two distinct species in spite of their apparent anatomical similarity. These results were not confirmed by study of nuclear DNA however, so scientifically the “jury” is still out, and we call both island forms, Greeff’s gecko. This critter is quite common in rock walls, culverts, rock crevices on both islands and is strictly nocturnal. 

 

Principe specimen of Greeff’s gecko. D. Lin phot. GG II.  

A similar situation exists with a small terrestrial skink called Panaspis africana, or Gulf Leaf-litter skink. A daytime forager, this small uniform-brown skink is very common in the lowlands; it can be easily heard and seen scuttling through dried cacao leaves and it is almost always found on the ground on both islands; one of our largest gravid (with eggs) female specimens from São Tomé is about 100 mm in total length, but most of our examples are smaller.  

Gulf Leaf-litter skink. Panaspis africana; D. Lin phot. GG II. 

The same group of researchers from the University of Madeira studied the DNA of leaf litter skinks of both islands, and also Annobón, the last island in the chain and part of Equatorial Guinea.  They used, in part, tissues and specimens collected by us during GG I in 2001.  In this case they found clear evidence for three separate species, one on each island (the one on Annobón is already called P. annobonensis); this was supported by both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequence.  However, in one of those tragic, fortunately rare, occurrences in science, the specimens from which the tissue samples were taken were either lost in transit or misplaced.  Without voucher samples the results cannot be duplicated or tested nor can we demonstrate the results.  So for now, although there was evidence that Panaspis is two different species on São Tomé and Príncipe we cannot confidently describe the populations of the different islands nor give them scientific names.  Until the study can be redone with new material, the Gulf leaf-litter skinks remain known as simply Panaspis africana

Author working on Principe.  Weckerphoto. GGIII  

The way we collect these specimens is not sophisticated – we use our hands. We turn over logs, rocks and branches on the ground or sift through leaf litter with rakes; we climb trees and cliffs; we go out at night with flashlights and headlamps. After capture, the specimens are put in separate plastic bags for later processing.  

 

Dr. Iwamoto in Sao Tome H. greeffii habitat on Sao Tome. RCD phot. GG I 

Jens Vindum searching leaf litter on Sao Tome. D. Lin phot. GG II 

 

Principe day gecko in plasic bag. RDC phot. GG III.

Every specimen we collect gets a unique field number, which is the same used for photographs of it, recordings or tissues samples taken. 

 

My grad student, Ricka Stoelting,  processing specimens on Principe. RCD phot. GG I 

Certainly one of the oddest endemic lizards is the legless skink, unique to Príncipe Island, Feylinia polylepis.  There are about six species known in this genus, the remaining five found broadly distributed on the African mainland.   

 

Principe legless skink, Feylinia polylepis. brown  phase. D. Lin phot. GG I. 

 They appear in two different color morphs, a brown one and a pale gray one, regardless of size or sex.  The locals call them, Ozhgah (or at least the name  sounds like that). 

 

Principe legless skin – grey phase.  D. Lin  phot. GG II 

 

Feylinia polylepis head shot. D. Lin phot. GG II 

They can be found under almost anything on the ground provided the earth is slightly moist. Once exposed, they are very quick and can rapidly disappear into holes in the ground. They are conspicuously common in the Príncipe lowlands, and in this regard are reminiscent of the caecilians of São Tomé Island; the high density of their numbers in suitable habitats suggests predation may be low in these areas. 

Not all geckos are nocturnal.  In the Old World there are two large groups that are secondarily diurnal, although they, like all geckos, lack eyelids.  The genus Phelsuma is a group of numerous species of velvety green geckos found on Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands; the other group, Lygodactylus are also present in Madagascar but also distributed throughout the Afrotropical region as well.  They are not brightly colored, and taxonomically rather poorly known.  The group as a whole is being studied by Dr. David Vieites (and his students) of Madrid and Dr. Adam Leache, of the University of Washington.  I have been involved as well but largely in studying the relationships of day geckos of the Gulf of Guinea Islands.  

 Lygodactylus thomensis. Sao Tome.  D. Lin  phot. GGI 

The Gulf of Guinea Day geckos are sun-lovers and strictly climbers, being fairly common on tree trunks and scuttling up walls even in São Tomé town and Santo Antonio, Príncipe.  They are very small, at about 70-80 mm total length.  The day geckos of the Gulf of Guinea islands (excluding the continental island of Bioko) have long been recognized as a distinct, endemic species, Lygodactylus thomensis, first discovered on São Tomé Island.  The day geckos on Príncipe and Annobón have been described as subspecies (or races, if you will) of the São Tomé species..  As you can see from the illustration below, one of the characteristics used to define species of day geckos is the throat pattern. 

 

 Day geckos of the Gulf of Guinea Islands.  RCD prep.

The throat patterns of the lizards on each of the three islands are quite consistently distinct from one another, and work by us and the University of Madeira suggest that they have been isolated from each other for a long, long time, and that each is a full species unique to its island. Work is continuing on these lizards.

 

 L. delicatus of Príncipe Island. RCD phot. GG III

 There are other conspicuous lizards on both islands but these are not considered endemics; i.e., they occur elsewhere and are probably just good over-water dispersers. The large speckled-lipped skink, Mabuya maculilabris, is common and widespread in the lowlands of both São Tomé and Príncipe. It is a good climber and is seen in a variety of habitats especially along the coast lines.  This species also broadly distributed on the African mainland.

 

 Speckle-lipped skink (Mabuya maculilabris) of the Gulf of Guinea. Sao Tome. D. Lin phot. GG II] 

 

M. maculilabris detail. D. Lin phot. GGII 

There are also non-endemic, nocturnal geckos on both islands. Most appear to be the widespread house gecko, Hemidactylus mabouia, also occuring nearly throughout Africa. 

 

House gecko, Hemidactylus mabouia.  D. Lin. phot.  GG II\] 

Note that the eyes are not greenish and that this species does not lack claws on the inner toe and finger.  There is some confusion as to how many non-endemic species are present and what to call them. 

H. mabouia foot from beneath. note claws. Weckerphoto GG III.

Snakes are coming next. 

Here’s the parting shot:  

The thrill of discovery! 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, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Bardero  of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of Sao Tome and Principe for permission to export specimens for study, and the continued support of Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murkami for helping make these expeditions possible.  

The Race: Matters of Currency

 Yes, the title is a play on words, and given the great threat posed to the unexplored natural environments of these two little unique islands by future oil revenues, I suppose a more appropriate title would be “Matters of Urgency,” but I couldn’t help myself.  In this posting I want to talk about the work of Dr. Richard Mooi, who was with us on GG II.  

Rich stalks an unsuspecting sea urchin on São Tomé. D. Lin phot. GG II. 

Dr.Rich Mooi is a Curator in our Department of Invertebrate Zoology, but more importantly to us (and to the blog title!), he is one of the world’s authorities on echinoderms, a large phylum that includes sea urchins, seas stars and what we Americans call “sand dollars,” the flat, disk-like tests (endoskeletons) of which we find commonly on our beaches.  One of the most fascinating, yet poorest known sand dollars in the world is Rotula deciesdigitata, known only from the Gulf of Guinea.  This species is probably not really rare but the places it occurs are remote and not frequently visited by scientists.  Hence, they are super-scarce in the world’s natural history collections; even more so in North America.

 

Technical photo.  Rotula deciesdigitata. 

The unit of currency in the Republic of São Tomé and Prìncipe is the Dobra; there are about 15,000 of ‘em to the US dollar.  Here is a photo of a bunch of dobras drying on my bed at Bom Bom Island on Principe.  Why? Well, the wonderful folks at Bombom Island and SCD allowed us to attempt to survey by boat the otherwise inaccessible southwest shore of Prìncipe; at a critical point, too many of us climbed into a small red dinghy and flipped in the surf.  Along with the dobras went a lot of equipment including cameras, my cell phone, ipod, etc.—more on this in another posting.

  

Drying dobras  RCD GGIII

 

The offending boat, post-flipping.  Weckerphoto GG III 

Anyway, once we finally found specimens of Rich’s Rotula, it was only natural that they become “sand dobras,” and the only beach we have found them on the west side of Sao Tome became Sand Dobra Beach– its real name is Praia Morrão.

 

Rotula deciesdigitata on Sand Dobra Beach.  D. Lin phot. GG II 

During GG II, Rich and I swam out beyond the surf line to try to secure a live specimen for DNA analysis (remember, the test you find on the beach is not the living animal, but rather its endoskeleton).  The undertow was so powerful that we both nearly drowned, but we did find one specimen that retained a greenish color, suggesting that there might be some remaining tissue to analyze; the jury is still out on this. The sand dobras present a rather interesting mystery, in that they appear to be wholly unrelated to those of the New World, while such might not be the case with other echinoderms. In his own words, Rich says “this strange pattern is further underscored by the fact that as I looked at all the other echinoderms around Sao Tome, the faunas were nearly perfectly Caribbean in nature.  There were times that I felt as though I was snorkeling around in Florida or Belize — at least as far as the sea urchins were concerned.  The rotulids were a glaring exception to that.”

Rich working.  D. Lin phot. GG II.   

Interestingly, there are many species with holes and notches in them throughout the Caribbean.  These are almost all members of a sand dollar family known as the Mellitidae. However, there are absolutely no mellitids on the west coast of Africa.  In fact, there are no “true” sand dollars at all.  The truth is that the Gulf of Guinea sand dobras are not even closely related to the Caribbean sand dollars, but belong not only to a different family (Rotulidae), but to a completely different major clade (suborder). This is perplexing. 

 

Rotula deciesdigitata on Sand Dobra Beach. Weckerphoto  GG III 

Dr. Rich Mooi is still working on the many fascinating echinoderms he collected on the beaches and tidepools of  São Tomé and Prìncipe in 2006, and I will report his discoveries as they appear.     

PARTNERS We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Research Investment Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement  (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/ and especially the generosity of three private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom and Timothy M. Muller, for making GG III possible.