Category Archives: snakes

The Race: GG VII – – First Week: Snakes, Workshops and Spiders

Our first week is now complete. The botanists and Andrew our photographer went to Príncipe early so I will include their progress in a later blog. One thing I will add though is a picture Andrew emailed us yesterday, a shot of the endemic diurnal green snake, the Príncipe Soá-soá. We have only been able to collect one of these (GG I); it is an extremely elusive species.

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Hapsidophrys principis  A. Stanbridge phot. GG VII

Signe Mikulane, a PhD student at the University of Heidelberg had been in contact with me during the past few months and delayed her return to Germany to be with us for a week. She joined us in our early school visits, and especially our annual check of the status of the large tree where we find the Sao Tome giant treefrog.

 GGVII Photos  - 681 V. Schnoll phot. GG VII

 We found no adults but Signe dug her hand into the tree hole and came up with tadpoles, so we know the tree is still in use. In the picture above, there are several tadpoles in her hands.

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  Velma Schnoll &Signe Mikulane return from the frog tree

RCD phot. GG VII

With the arrival of Roberta Ayres (and Dr. Szuts) the biodiversity education team was complete.

P1010209Ayres and Szuts arrive in Sao Tome RCD phot. GG VII

Saturday we held our first ever teacher workshop at Escola Primaria Maria de Jesus, the largest primary school in the country (2,000+ kids).

IMG_2293RCD phot GG VII

 We spoke to 58 teachers about island biodiversity in more depth so that they can use the materials we have brought more efficiently. The hour and a half presentation was extremely well received, even though we had to project our powerpoint on the back of a canvas painting!

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RCD phot GG VII

Although we are concentrating on fourth grade this year, the teachers were from all grades and we have already noticed that our materials, the posters, the coloring books, etc. are used widely at many different levels.

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The education team: Velma Schnoll, Roberta Ayres, Roberta dos Santos

RCD phot GG VII

Dr. Tamas Szuts, Professor of Biology at the University of West Hungary is our jumping spider expert. We took him into the field early, to the south end of the island and he began collecting.

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Here, Tamas is using a simple sweep net. RCD phot GG VII

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Tamas is using a beating pan here. He holds it beneath a bush and beats the latter.  RCD phot GG VII

 By the way, these pictures do not do Tamas justice. He is about 6’ 8” tall. He brings specimens back live and then photographs them in great detail.

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 This is Tamas photo setup in our room and the results are truly spectacular RCD phot GG VII

By the way, the bottle on the right is NOT vodka; it is lab grade ethyl alcohol for the preservation of DNA,

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T. Szuts photos GG VII

The second two images are salticid, or jumping spiders; the first is of a different group.

In this YouTube video, Tamas Szuts describes his fieldwork: http://youtu.be/LDdFMn0eARw

More soon when Rayna, our frog student arrives and we reunite with the rest of the science team.

Here’s the parting shot:

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Satocao workers returning from cacao plantation V. Schnoll 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 Tome http://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: Island Biologists in Training

Jens Vindum, Senior Collections Manager, Department of Herpetology. (phot D. Lin-GG I)

I need to add and addendum to last month’s blog, “Why We collect Specimens.” Our Senior Collections Manager, Jens Vindum (GG I, GG II) has just informed me that since 2003, there have been 33 international scientific papers published on our Gulf of Guinea reptile and amphibian specimens and/or tissue samples from them!

Clearly, the scientific world is beginning to hear about Sâo Tomé and Príncipe! At this point, I do not know how much of our material from other disciplines has been used but certainly our samples are in labs all over the world.

We have been extremely fortunate to have been able to bring a series of our graduate students with us on a number of our expeditions.  Not only have most flourished academically and many have published on their island projects, they represent a cadre of new young scientists who have an understanding of the uniqueness of the islands and the people who live on them.  All have interacted closely with local island citizens and as a result, function as young biology ambassadors for these fabulous islands.  Overall, the islands are still very poorly known to the outside world, but we are getting there!  Here are our young colleagues:


Lindsay Wilson on Bioko Island with bush viper.  RCD phot – 1998

Lindsay Wilson was a participant on our 1998 expedition to Bioko, the first island in the Gulf of Guinea chain. She completed her MSc on African treefrogs of the genus Hyperolius at San Francisco State University with highest honors.


Joel Ledford on Sao Tome.  D. Lin phot- GG I

Joel Ledford joined Gulf of Guinea I as the graduate student of Dr. Charles Griswold. He completed his MSc at San Francisco State and then his PhD in spider systematics at the University of California, Berkeley.


D. Lin phot – GG I

Also on GG I was Ricka Stoelting, my graduate student. She completed her MSC on the endemic caecilian of Sao Tome (she is holding one, above) and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin.  She is also working on the publication of her MSc work at San Francisco State (SFSU).


B. Van Syoc photo – GG III

Dana Carrison-Stone was a participant of the marine expedition, GG III as the graduate student of Dr. Bob Van Syoc.  Dana discovered two new species of barnacles from the islands and they are part of her MSc which she completed last year at SFSU.


D. Lin phot – GG II

Josef Uyeda was on GG II and again GG on III as an undergraduate at Willamette University and one of my Summer Systematics interns.  During his island work, he discovered and described a new species of frog from Sâo Tomé. As I write, he is defending his doctoral thesis (tomorrow!) at Oregon State University. Flash!! Josef finished his PhD today! (Oct 5)

 

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Mac Campbell, also a Willamette undergrad, joined GG II as an assistant to our ichthyologist, Dr. Tomio Iwamoto.  He has since completed his MSc at University of Alaska, Fairbanks and is currently a PhD candidate in fish systematic at the same institution.


Weckerphoto – GG III

Rebecca Wenk joined GG III as the grad student of Dr. Tom Daniel one of our senior botanists.  Rebecca’s work resulted in her successful completion of her MSc at SFSU and also an excellent scientific publication on plants of the family Acanthaceae.  Tragically, Rebecca died of a serious illness last year.


A. Stanbridge phot – GG IV

Miko Nadel is a graduate student at San Francisco State, studying under Dr. Dennis Desjardin, the mycologist on GG II and GG III). Miko was a participant on GG VI doing the first comprehensive survey of lichens on the island.

A. Stanbridge phot. GG VI

Rayna Bell also joined us on GG VI, studying color variation in African treefrogs. Rayna is a PhD candidate at Cornell University.

The people above were or still are graduate students who have actually worked on the islands with us.  But they are not the only young academics studying our Gulf of Guinea Island material.  Here at the California Academy of Sciences we have a program known as the Summer Systematics Institute (SSI). This program is funded by the National Science Foundation, and undergraduate students can apply to work on scientific projects for the summer under the mentorship of a CAS faculty member. Here are those that have worked on Gulf of Guinea specimens. I have not included students who started as undergrad SSI interns and later became our grad students (Lindsay Wilson, Josef Uyeda and Ricka Stoelting).


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Katie Marshall was an Occidental College undergrad and my SSI intern in 2006.  Katie studied the genetics of the Oceanic treefrog, Hyperolius molleri, the only Gulf of Guinea endemic frog that occurs on both islands.  Katie is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, studying the genomics of marine bacteria.

RCD phot.

Lisette Arellano was an undergrad at the University of California, Santa Barbara when she joined us as my SSI intern in 2009. Lisette examined the morphology and genetics of cobra jita snakes (Lamprophis), long thought to be the same species on Sâo Tomé and Príncipe.  Lisette showed that in fact the two island populations are genetically quite different, also recognizable by color pattern as distinct.  Although we know each island is a different species, we have been unable to publish new names because the relationships of the same group on mainland Africa are still very unclear. Lisette is currently a PhD candidate in Biology at the University of Colorado.


RCD phot – 2010

One of the last vertebrates one would predict to be native to an oceanic island is a shrew, largely due to physiological constraints. During the SSI summer of 2010, Eden Maloney’s DNA work showed that the Sâo Tomé shrew, Crocidura thomensis, did arrive on the island naturally, probably many thousands of years ago and is a true endemic species. Its nearest relative is a different species found in eastern South Africa.  Eden has just graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles and is applying to graduate schools.  We are working on publishing her work.

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Lizzie Miller of the University of California, San Diego was my most recent SSI intern (2010). Lizzie has graduated and is now in graduate school at UCSD studying fish systematics.  Readers will already know from this blog that Lizzie discovered and described a new species of gecko from Príncipe, Hemidactylus principensis.

Lauren in Nigeria. D Blackburn phot – 2012.

Lauren Scheinberg is also a grad student at San Francisco State University. Although never an SSI intern nor has she been with us to the islands, she was my lab assistant on a long-term physiology project and now works as a curatorial assistant in our department.  She has become involved in a rather complicated taxonomic problem with the island skinks of the genus Afroablepharis. Like Lisette’s snakes, we know from the work of colleagues in Madeira and Portugal that the skinks are different species on Sâo Tomé and Príncipe.  Unfortunately, material we loaned them that formed part of the basis of this hypothesis was somehow lost in transit.  Lauren has analyzed our remaining material but collating the information generated by different labs can be extremely difficult.  But we are working on it.

Plans are already afoot for GG VII next year.

Here’s the parting shot:

Joy on the way to Rolas, Sao Tome.. B. Simison phot. – GG VI

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: Sixth Gulf of Guinea Expedition Redux

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All of the GG VI participants are home now, and our specimens and materials are safely ensconced in their respective departments at the Academy.  For the first time, we had an official patch for the expedition. The original design of the cobra bobo and giant Begonia was drawn by one my graduate students, Dashiell Harwood. The patch was produced by our friend, Mike Murakami, who played such an important role in the production of the biodiversity coloring books (more about the education project below.) We gave many of these stick-on patches to third grade teachers to hand out as incentives to hard-working students.

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Dr. Iwamoto consuming his favorite, the concon. (A. Stanbridge – GG VI

Soon after Dr. Tomio Iwamoto, our marine ichthyologist and veteran of GGI and GG II returned home to the Academy a few weeks before the last of us, he left for Africa again. And, once again, he is aboard the Norwegian research vessel, the R.V. Nansen, as a senior scientist. I devoted an entire blog to his last trip aboard the Nansen, a couple of years ago.  They are trawling for deep water fish off the coast of Guinea Conakry. I believe the ship will also be exploring the coast of Mauritania in the following weeks. Since he left before we returned we have not been able to discuss his findings during GG VI; but below is a photo of the strange pipefish he and and Dr. Brian Simison seined in northern S?o Tomé

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Microphis, the only member of its family reported from S?o Tomé and Príncipe. (B. Simison-GG VI)

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Our botanists had a “a field day,” so to speak.  Recall that Jim Shevock (right) made 682 collections during GG IV, and this time he figured he would just pick up a few things he missed.  Not so. He estimates that among the 647 collections he made in GG VI are between 50 to 100 species of bryophytes he had not seen before, and these include at least 12 genera of liverworts and 12 genera of mosses that are new to the islands.
Miko Nadel (left, above) really has his hands full trying to sort out the lichens; there are 129 previously known species, but Miko made 475 collections, many of which will undoubtedly be new.  He tells me that lichenologists classify lichens by the supporting fungus rather than the symbiotic algae.

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Pico Mesa,  Príncipe ( RCD –  GG III)

In an earlier blog from the islands, I reported that Jim, Miko and our photographer Andrew were the first CAS workersto study the top of Pico do S?o Tomé. Later on Príncipe, Jim and Miko became the first of us to reach the top of Pico Mesa (above).  Because they had to walk there rather than reaching the base by boat, they were only able to explore the northern most reaches of it; it appears to be a botanist’s paradise, and we will definitely return. Dr. Tom Daniel (GG III and IV) is particularly interested in getting up there as Miko photographed an endemic Impatiens at the top.

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Gabriel, me, Rayna Bell and Joao Pedro Pio at Bom Sucesso (A. Stanbridge – GGVI)

The herpetologists also did well. Rayna and I were assisted by a young Portuguese biologist, Joao Pedro Pio (far right), currently working on the endangered endemic maroon pigeon for workers at the University of Lisbon. He and his co-workers (including Gabriel, left) accompanied Rayna on all of her nocturnal frog hunts.

 

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Above is Hyperolius molleri, the oceanic treefrog typically inhabiting the lower elevations of both islands. This particular frog is being devoured by a wolf spider and note that it is largely a uniform green in color. In many earlier blogs, I have included images of the S?o Tomé giant treefrog which is much bigger, has bright orange and black markings and is typically found above 1100 meters.

 

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Rayna’s sample from between 700 and 900 meters would strongly suggest that the two species are hybridizing at this level.  This is pretty exciting in that, if supported by genetic analysis, it will fit right into her PhD thesis at Cornell University.

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While I failed to find adult specimens of the Príncipe shrew which we know to be endemic and distinct from the S?o Tomé shrew, we did find the largest “cobra gita” (house snake: Lamprophis sp.) we have ever seen and from a new locality.  This, too, we know to be a distinct species from the S?o Tomé Lamprophis, but we have thus far been unable to describe it. This is because there are many species of the same genus on the African mainland, and their relationships are poorly understood. So while we know the two island species are distinct from one another, we cannot guarantee that one or the other (or both) does not also occur on the mainland.

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The Príncipe thumbnail-less gecko H. principensis (Weckerphoto – GG III]

While we were on Príncipe I received word that the description our new species of gecko had been formally published, so above meet Hemidactylus principensis.  Like H. greeffi, its nearest relative on S?o Tomé, it lacks the thumbnail on the first toe, but otherwise, the two are very, very different.

Dr. Brian Simison’s finding that there are no limpets on either S?o Tomé or Príncipe is intriguing.  Brian informs me that so far as he knows, S?o Tomé and Príncipe may be the only oceanic islands that lack them.  They are present on the Cape Verde Ids, the Seychelles, etc.

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Dr Brian Simison at Laguna Azul.  (A. Stanbridge – GG VI)

This leads to the possibility that there may be something in the volcanic rock making up these islands that precludes the presence of these mollusks.

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Recall from earlier blogs that all four of the Gulf of Guinea Islands, plus Mt. Cameroon, the Cameroon highlands and even the Jos Plateau of Nigeria all originated from magmatic extrusions up through a 3,000 km-long linear fissure or rift that transects both the marine and continental parts of the African plate known as the Guinea Line; extrusion of magma occurred at various times from over 60 million years ago to the very recent Holocene continental island of Bioko.

The remarkable towers of both S?o Tomé and Príncipe which appear in these blogs with such frequency are indeed of a rather uncommon, chemically distinct rock known as phonolite, usually associated with geologic hotspots.

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Príncipe, note phonolite towers and mesa on lower left. (A. Stanbridge – GG VI)

One test of the hypothesis that it is something about the rock that is excluding limpets would be to explore the shoreline of Bioko, the youngest of the Gulf of Guinea Ids and the only continental member of the archipelago.  And as luck would have it, our colleague, Rayna Bell will be working on Bioko in a matter of months.  In addition to looking for limpets on Bioko t the presence or absences of limpets along the Gulf of Guinea coast should be documented. If indeed the rock is unsuitable for limpets Brian would predict that limpets would be found on either side of Guinea Line, but not on rocks produced by it.

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(l-r, Roberta Ayres,  Velma Schnoll, me on, S?o Tomé (A.  Stanbridge – GG VI)

I devoted an entire blog last month to the biodiversity education component of GG VI, and for all of us involved, this was just joyous. We personally delivered 1,840 endemic species coloring books to third graders in 62 classrooms of 17 selected primary schools on both islands. On the big island the schools were in the districts of S?o Tomé town, Angolares, Trindade and Neves , and on Príncipe  at Santo Antonio, Sundy, Sao Joaquim, Nova Estrella and Praia Abade.

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Porto Real, “my school” on Príncipe  (V. Schnoll – GG VI)

To say they were well received would be a gross understatement.  Again, we thank all who worked on this project (see March 9 blog: Sharing the Wealth; and for those who made GG VI financially possible, see “Partners” below).  At the adult level, we also gave five lectures on the biodiversity of the islands: two in Portugal and three at institutions on the islands themselves.

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Droo doing his thing on S?o Tomé ( R. Bell – GG VI)

Andrew Stanbridge (above), our photographer on both GG V and GG VI, is a remarkable person in many ways; much more than just a gifted professional artist.  His website is Andrewstanbridge.com

Here are some parting shots:

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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 collectexport specimens for study. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who have 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. Logistics and lodging for GG VI (Omali Lodge and Bom Bom Island) were kindly provided by HBD.

The Race: Really Weird Island Snakes

A wormsnake from Kenya (Leptotyphlops drewesi).   Phot. D. Lin, CAS

In these accounts, I have written a fair amount about the two species of island house snakes (Lamprophis-cobra jita) that Lisette is still analyzing and a bit on the supposedly introduced cobra on São Tomé (Naja melanoleuca – “cobra preta”);  I have also mentioned the fact that each island also has a diurnal green snake, endemic  but unrelated to each other (Hapsidophrys principis, Philothamnus thomensis –“cobra sua sua”.   However, there are three additional snakes that I have not mentioned much: these are the so-called blind- or worm snakes.  Collectively, their technical name is the Scolecophidia, and the group is considered primitive relative to other snakes.  As their common names imply, all have reduced or no vision, virtually all of them are burrowers; they are small as snakes go and blunt at both ends, and there are about 300 species in three families found world-wide in tropical and many subtropical regions.

The fact that they are burrowers (fossorial), like the endemic São Tomé caecilian, Schistometopum thomense –“ cobra bobo”, lends credence to our 2007 hypothesis that some of the Gulf of Guinea endemics were carried to the islands from mainland Africa on very large floating chunks of riverbank from either the Niger or the Congo.  Burrowing legless vertebrates are unlikely to be found floating on logs or being carried by high winds!

Proposed riverbank raft (Measey, et al., 2007). Illustration: Richard E. Cook

There are three endemic blindsnakes on the oceanic Gulf of Guinea Islands: The beatiful golden blindsnake, Typhlops elegans is endemic to Príncipe island.  It is often confused by locals with the São Tomé burrowing caecilian, as its Kreo name implies: “cobra bobo do Príncipe.

Typlops elegans, the “cobra bobo do Principe.”  Weckerphoto GG III

Typlops elegans. D. Lin phot. GG II

Two endemic blindsnakes inhabit São Tomé exclusively, and as you can see they are extremely similar in appearance.

Fea’s wormsnake, Rhinotyphlops feae. D. Lin phot. GG II

Newton’s wormsnake, Rhinotyphlops newtoni. RCD phot. GG I

The reason I have not written much about them is that they are rather poorly known. Most species are small and difficult to work with, in that the characteristics that might serve to distinguish them are also very small and nearly impossible to discern without magnification.  My colleague, Dr. Van Wallach, of Harvard University is probably the current world authority on these wormlike snakes, and it has taken much of his career to understand them; many of the characteristics he has studied are internal.

Colleagues of mine have just published a major work on one of the families, the Typhlopidae,  in Biology Letters, a distinguished international journal.  Prof. Blair Hedges kindly gave me permission to reproduce the figure below, and I am discussing it here relative to our island work in order to show how the work of others can add to, support or even falsify one’s own– it is how science proceeds.from Vidal, Marin, Morini, Donnellan, Branch, Thomas, Vences, Wynn, Cruaud & Hedges. 2010 Biology Letters 6:558-561

This is not as complicated as it may seem although it will be difficult to read at low resolution.  As with other cladograms, each of the names on the far right column  represents a single species clustered with its nearest relative(s); thus it is a “picture” of proposed evolutionary relationships.  This figure also contains estimates of when each lineage and its nearest relative split from their common ancestor (time divergence)—the common ancestor is indicated by a black dot (node) and the length of each branch linking two species is an indication of time.  Actual time in millions of years is given on the very bottom, along with the names of the geologic periods in vertical colored bars (blue= Jurassic; light green = early and late Cretaceous (K); orange  = Paleogene, and yellow, the most recent =  Neogene).  The authors have also provided diagrams (upper left) of the relative positions of the continents during the breakup of Gondwanaland.  The major points of this study are (1) that the common ancestor of all scolecophidians dates back 150 million years to the Jurassic Period (before the breakup of Gondwanaland), (2) that the ancestor of the modern Typhlopidae originally existed on an early landmass the authors call Indigascar (Madagacar + India) back in the Late Cretaceous, and (3) that the presence of their modern relatives in South America, Australia and the West Indies is most likely the result of a number of overwater dispersal events (like rafting), including a major western transatlantic one.

Vidal and the other authors included samples of the Gulf of Guinea Islands endemics which we collected during GG I and GG II, and their results are of great interest to us as we try to understand the origins of the Gulf of Guinea Islands biodiversity.

Expanded view of African clade from Vidal et al. Principe species in blue; Sao Tome species in red.

Distribution of the two Sao Tome wormsnakes and nearest relatives.

Here is the disjunct pattern that has frequently appeared when we look at the evolutionary relationships between Gulf of Guinea island endemics and their African mainland relatives; first, note that Rhinotyphlops newtoni and R. feae appear to have diverged from their common ancestor only a few million years ago.  Since, the minimum age of São Tomé is regarded as about 13 million years, it seems likely that this split occurred on the island, possibly as a result of volcanic events which isolated two populations of the ancestor from each other.  This is a more likely scenario than separate colonization events from the mainland.  However, the nearest relatives of the island species are a clade (sister-group) comprising R. unitaeniatus of East Africa and R. lalandei of southern Africa, and a look at the branch lengths of this sister-relationship suggests that, if the time divergence estimates  in this publication are correct, the common ancestor of both groups existed on the mainland over 50 million years ago.

Distribution of Principe wormsnake and its nearest relatives.

The situation with the beautiful Príncipe endemic, Typlops elegans is somewhat unclear, since the true distribution of its nearest relative, T. angolensis, is not known with certainty; the latter is said to occur from coastal Cameroon, south to Gabon and Angola and west to western Kenya, but these specimens have never been systematically examined.  Moreover, African distributions as broad as this one frequently turn out to be made up of the distributions a number of similar “cryptic” species.  But assuming that T. angolensis does have this distribution, that the tree is accurate, and the time divergences therein are reasonable estimates, one would naturally conclude that the ancestor of “cobra bobo do Príncipe“ reached that island and diverged from mainland T. angolensis during the past few million years.  If branch lengths are accurate it would appear this happened at roughly the same time as the two São Tomé endemics were diverging from their common ancestor.  Even though Príncipe, at 31 million years, is more than twice as old as São Tomé is geologically, this is not an unreasonable hypothesis.

This cladogram also suggests that these two blindsnakes share common ancestry with an unidentified species (specimen) collected at Lwiro, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This interests us because this locality is close to the Itombwe Highlands, which are, geologically, very, very old, dating back to the Mesozoic.

On a different tangent, our island biodiversity posters are nearing completion, and that will be my next topic.

The parting shot:

Our work in Paradise.  Sao Tome, 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 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 and Velma and Michael Schnoll for helping make these expeditions possible.  Our expeditions can be supported by donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.

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.

 

Within the House of Slytherin (II. some snakes)

Snakes are not great over-ocean dispersers; they are certainly better than frogs or freshwater fish but not as successful as spiders, geckos and skinks. For instance there are no native snakes in the Hawaiian Islands although they do occur in the Galapagos, but these are much closer to a source continent. In spite of their small size and isolated nature, São Tomé and Príncipe have a rather surprising snake fauna; there are at least seven species, five of which we know to be endemic – they are found nowhere else. This group includes three species of “lower snakes” or scolecophidians; these are small, blind burrowing forms, two of which are endemic to São Tomé and one to Príncipe.

Rhinotyphlops newtonii, a burrowing scolecophidian from Sao Tome. (D. Lin phot. GG I)

The more advanced snakes (caenophidians) are represented by one endemic, diurnal (daytime) species on each island (belonging to two unrelated genera) and a nocturnal subspecies which is currently thought to be the same on both islands.

Hapsidophrys principis(cobra sua sua:“snake fast”)- the endemic diurnal  species of Principe (D. Lin phot. GGI).

The nocturnal snakes are known as cobra jita (“snake slow”). I have mentioned these in earlier blogs, and my suspicions are that the two island populations are distinct endemics—we are beginning a molecular study this summer to test this hypothesis.

Cobra jita (“snake slow”), the nocturnal species from both islands?  (Weckerphoto. GG III)

But here I want to talk about the remaining snake found on São Tomé which the islanders call cobra preta (“snake black”); this is the only dangerous species on the islands, and it is a bit of a mystery to me.

The black and white, or Forest cobra – Naja melanoleuca. Ethnobiomed phot.

Widely distributed on the African mainland, this species is known as the forest cobra, or black and white cobra (Naja melanoleuca), and it is quite a venomous and formidable animal. In some parts of its range it can exceed 3 meters in length (10’).

Forest cobra distribution.  map by Nils Boyson

Head of Forest or Black and White cobra, Naja melanoleuca.

This snake, like most true cobras, displays a hood as part of its defense system, essentially making itself look larger in order to warn of its presence. Like all members of family Elapidae, cobra preta has erect front fangs that are hollow and syringe-like, and it injects prey animals with venom that attacks the nervous system (neurotoxin).

[l.]  C. melanoleuca fang showing aperture (Bruce Young) [r.] direction of venom injection (E. Jose)

All of the São Toméans know of cobra preta and fear it, although I have no idea how frequently citizens are bitten. Based  on a dead-on the-road specimen at nearly sea level in the south of the island, we know it occurs in lowlands, but I suspect it is more common in the mid-level forests; during GG I, we purchased a number of skins from farmers at Bombaim, which is at middle elevation.

Dead on the road, south Sao Tome. (RCD phot. GG recon 2000)

Joel Ledford with Bom Sucesso specimen. (J. Ledford phot. GG I)

The 2- meter specimen above was killed by locals near the Botanic Gardens and Herbarium of Bom Sucesso at about 1000 m, and we were able collect it during the GG I expedition.

During GG II in 2006, we encountered a very large specimen while collecting along an aquaduct in the Contador Valley on the west side of the island at 700 m; in fact, several of us nearly stepped on it before we were aware of its presence.

On our most recent foray, GG III A, we were again on the Contador Aquaduct when a middle-sized snake was killed by locals around a bend in the road, less than 100 m from where we were working.

Contador Valley specimen (Weckerphoto GG III)

Regrettably, they had beheaded the specimen, and so it was of no value as a voucher specimen; however, we were able to photo-document the animal and I removed some liver tissue for future analysis.

Liver tissue removal. (Weckerphoto. GG III)

The presence of the cobra on São Tomé Island is widely considered to be the result of human introduction, most likely accidental (it is hard to imagine an individual bringing a deadly snake on purpose!). Physically it appears to be identical to the widespread Naja melanoleuca of the mainland. Accidental introduction makes ecological sense to me as well because the species does not really fit into this old ecosystem as we are beginning to understand it. We know that the other higher snakes feed on endemic prey species such as frogs and lizards. But aside from some birds, there do not seem to be endemic prey species that are of sufficient size to sustain a large, heavy-bodied snake like cobra preta; on the other hand, plenty of rats, chickens, etc. have been brought over by humans since the 15th Century.

Two of the top African cobra experts are Drs Wolfang Wuster of the University of Wales and Donald Broadley of Zimbabwe. They are currently working on this species, and we have been sending them our tissue samples for DNA analysis. Soon, we should know whether or not this large cobra drifted out to the islands on its own and has since been genetically diverging, or whether it was brought to the island through human agency. Wuster and Broadley are currently describing a new species from Ghana that was long thought to be the species Naja melanoleuca.

Our parting shot:

Roadside enterprise on Principe(Weckerphoto GGIII)

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: Glorious Ghost in the Forest

Scientists love islands because the processes of evolution on islands are simpler than they are on more complex, much larger continents and thus more easily studied. I have made the point that the islands of Sao Tome and Principe are very poorly known, but what we do know is very exciting. One evolutionary pattern that seems to consistently appear on islands is the phenomenon of gigantism; for some reason certain successful colonizers become very large on islands: for instance, think of the tortoises on the Galapagos Ids. or on Aladabra. There are a number of hypotheses that attempt to explain this phenomenon, but none is particularly compelling; nevertheless, the pattern exists and is very evident on the oceanic Gulf of Guinea Islands. The composite image below illustrates just a few of the giants on Sao Tome and Principe.

Some Island Giants

Think of potted plants for a moment… how large is a begonia? The central plant in this composite image is the largest species in the world, Begonia baccata. It is found only on the island of Sao Tome and reaches 10 meters in height! This particular specimen graces the southern shore of Lagoa Amelia at about 1480 m elevation – my head comes up to about flower level on this old friend (I am 6′ tall); these enormous plants are common at higher levels. The two birds figured are also giants: the yellow one on the right is the world’s largest weaver. Ploceus grandis,. and the one on the left is the world’s largest sunbird, Dreptes thomensis; both endemic to the larger island of Sao Tome. This is a good point at which to mention that island dwarfism is also an observable phenomenon  here as well, and the world’s smallest ibis, the Sao Tome Dwarf Ibis, Bostrychia bocagei is also an endemic.  The other critters in the collage, the frogs and the lizards, are all endemic giants but I will deal with them later. It is important to bear in mind that when we call a species a “giant”, we are describing its size compared to all of its other relatives only; such a species may not appear to be a giant at all, in our eyes.

The Sao Tome Giant Treefrog, Hyperolius thomensis, and I go back a long way; back to when I was writing my doctoral dissertation many years ago. This sapo (as all frogs are called on the islands) is endemic to Sao Tome only and is easily the largest member of its genus (Hyperolius)- females reach lengths of nearly 50 mm.from snout to vent!

Sao Tome Giant Treefrog, Hyperolius thomensis.GG I and GG II – D. Lin

Nearly all of the original material from which this species was described in 1886 was destroyed in the fire in Lisbon.  But I managed to find four remaining specimens, two in Vienna and two at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, allowing me to treat them in my dissertation.  In 1988 and again 1990 more specimens were reported by a Swiss worker, but her published locality data are very general, if not vague, and it turns out that most of the material she worked on was collected by locals at her request prior to her arrival.  During GG I, we visited most of her reported localities, finding nothing until we finally got lucky. Now, I can state that this most flamboyant of treefrogs is currently known for certain from only a single locality!  Our work in GG I, II and III has confirmed that this marvelous critter is known only from higher elevations (above 1000 m), inhabiting the canopy of old secondary or primary growth trees on steep slopes.  And it appears to breed only in the water-filled holes in trees with fluted bark or buttresses.  This is a rarity – in Africa, only 9 other frog species are known to breed in phytotelmata (scientific word for treehole). But it makes sense.  Most frogs lay eggs, which develop into free-swimming, gilled tadpoles, which then metamorphose.  Although there are many fast moving rivers on the steep slopes of Sao Tome, these are far to swift for breeding; still bodies of water simply do not exist. So, H. thomensis has adapted to breeding in ephemeral, rain-filled holes in the trunks of very large trees! All of the other frogs native to the islands utilize slow moving or still water for reproduction.

The tree – J. Clara, GG III

This is the only tree in which we have collected the Sao Tome Giant treefrog.  It is at about 1100 m on a high ridge, and we return each expedition to check its status. Adults are usually present but there are always eggs and tadpoles at different stages of development in the holes.  Tom and Rebecca, our botanists, could not identify this tree – it is simply too tall its see its canopy, and moreover it is festooned with epiphytes.

Frogs and eggs in treeholes –  WE, GG III

Wes Eckerman, our photographer tried to climb it, and then tried to climb an adjacent tree to see if there were more holes, but the tree is just too big in girth to handle; with our friend Jose Clara, we tried to erect a crude ladder to examine a hole farther up the trunk but to no avail.

RCD, GG III

I do not mean to imply that this species is restricted to this tree.  We have heard the species calling at night from high up in the canopy and reasonably certain that it is pretty widespread, at least in the high elevation forests we have visited – I suspect it is present on Sao Tome anywhere the trees are large enough and that. of course.  means upslope above the former Portuguese plantations.  What is different about this single documented tree is that it is the only one whose rain-filled holes are within our reach – there are undoubtedly more holes in many more trees that are too high for us to access.  I am left with the notion that given its restricted range and peculiar breeding biology, the Sao Tome Giant Treefrog is a classic indicator species; its presence means healthy mature forest.  If I were to choose an icon to symbolize the dogged persistence of pockets of nature in the face of man’s depredations and at the same time the attitude, beauty and whimsy of the citizens of Sao Tome and Principe, it would be this gorgeous island giant. Josef, my former student, informs me that he has already seen the name of this species on a price list in the pet trade in Europe.  If you  wonder why I have not described the location of this tree is in more detail, now you know. 

In the last posting, I promised you a picture of the cobra jita of Sao Tome. Here are shots of both island forms, which are currently considered to be the same species.

Sao Tome Jita – RCD, GG I

Principe Jita – WE, GG III

Not only do these critters look different from those on Sao Tome (stripes vs. patterned blotches), they act differently as well. On Sao Tome, cobra jita appears to be strictly nocturnal; during GG I and GG II we easily found them at night by first listening for the loud choruses of oceanic treefrogs (more about them later). So far as we know, the Sao Tome jita largely feeds on these frogs while they are breeding and is strictly nocturnal; to see at least ten of these snakes in a single night under the right conditions is not uncommon.

 

R. Stoelting, my grad student, with her first Jita – GG I, RCD phot. After our week on Principe, however, I am prepared to say that that jita is diurnal and although we will not know until we check stomachs, I think it feeds on lizards and small rodents. We even located a chorus of treefrogs behind Bombom but failed find a jita, nor did we ever find one during our night hunts. Only time and careful study of morphology nd DNA will tell us how closely related these two island snakes really are.Thanks to Caitlin D. for her generous donation. We are doing what we can!

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.

The Race Continues: We Find Jita!

We are still on Principe and down to the hard corps: me, Wes and Josef. The mushroom and plant folks, Dennis, Brian, Tom and Rebecca are home in San Francisco by now. So it is time to tell you a little about my own research interests. Cobra Jita is a snake and we have been looking for it all week; in order to explain why, I need to tell you a frog story.
Josef and a big tree

Josef Uyeda on Principe. Weckerphoto GGIII

As I have said, the fact that there are amphibians here at all is astounding; amphibians, along with primary freshwater fish, are among the poorest dispersers across saltwater barriers known. They are the last kinds of critters one would expect to find on an oceanic island…. Think of the Hawaiian Islands and the Galapagos, perhaps the two most intensely studied oceanic archipelagos in the world… no frogs or other amphibians, right? But here on Sao Tome and Principe we have seven amphibian species, one of which is the famous caecilian, Schistometopum thomense. How can this be? How did they get here? More on this later, but one of the keys is time: remember that Sao Tome is at least 15 million years old, and Principe is more than double that, perhaps 31 million years. Hawaii and the Galapagos are but 5 million years max.

During GG I, we collected series of little brown frogs of the genus Phrynobatrachus from various locations on both islands; at the time all of them were considered the same species, P. dispar, originally described from Principe over 100 years ago. In 2005, a bright young intern from Willamette University named Josef Uyeda, spent the summer in my lab studying these preserved specimens and concluded that the frogs were quite different. Josef joined GG II and did a lot of collecting on both islands, recorded calls, did dissections and comparisons of DNA from the critters on both islands. The results are that the two island frogs are VERY different; in fact, there is nearly 21% DNA sequence difference between the two; indicating that they have not interbred in many millions of years, possibly predating the existence of Sao Tome (yet they still look virtually identical!). Moreover the two together appear to be more closely related to East African species than to more nearby West African species, but more on that later. In 2007, Josef, I and Breda Zimkus of Harvard described the Sao Tome brown frogs as a new species, Phrynobatrachus leveleve.
Phrynobatrachus leveleve, Sao Tome

Phrynobatrachus leveleve. Sao Tome. Weckerphoto GGIII
P. dispar, Principe

Phrynobatrachus dispar Principe. Weckerphoto GGIII
Uyeda et al. 2007 Proc.C.A.S.

from Uyeda et al. 2007. Proc. Calif. Acad. Sci. 58

This brings me to cobra jita (pronounced “zheetah” – it means snake slow, as opposed to the other Principe snake, cobra sua sua, which means snake fast!). Here we have the same situation as we had with the small brown frogs, Phrynobatrachus. Jita (more properly known as Lamprophis lineatus bedriagae, or lined house snake) has always been considered to be the same species on both islands. After our frog studies, I am not so sure! They look different – regrettably I will have to post a picture of the Sao Tome form later… didn’t bring one in my zip drive—the Principe form is much more obviously patterned than the Sao Tome snake. During GG I and GG II we got very good samples of the Sao Tome population, but for some reason, only one specimen from Principe.
Our first Jita- Lamprophis lineatus

Lamprophis from Bombom Id, Principe. Weckerphoto GGIII
Jita's head

Lamprophis from Sao Tome. D. Lin photo. GGII

Josef is now a PhD candidate at Oregon State University and joined us a couple of weeks ago in our search for Jita (among other things I will describe later). Snakes, as you probably know, are where you find them… as primary predators, they are never very common but always around, and such has been the case here on Principe. It has taken us six days of trekking around in the forest, turning over logs, etc. to find six snakes. But I am delighted. This is certainly enough now to estimate the genetic distance between the two populations, and given the age of these islands, I will not be surprised at all to learn that they are distinct at the species level.
Josef and me

Josef and I looking for Jita on Bombom Id. Weckerphoto. GGIII

We have learned a lot about this critter. On Sao Tome, Jita is primarily nocturnal while the daylight hours on that island seem to be dominated by the endemic Sao Tome green bush snake, Philothamnus thomensis. This is the situation we would predict using island biogeographic theory—no niche overlap – they both seem to eat frogs and skinks, but at different times. But here on Principe, all of the jitas we have caught have been during the daylight hours, as was the single individual caught during GG II in 2006. Moreover, the green snake of Principe (yes there is a green sua sua here as well, but not related to the Sao Tome species) also seems to be diurnal! They are incredibly fast; we have seen two of them and missed both. So until we can look at stomach contents, we seem to have an ecological mystery.
me, Josef and Ramos

Me, Josef and Ramos on Bombom Id. Weckerphoto GGIII

Our search has been greatly aided by an amazingly bright local naturalist; Jose Ramos Maria Vital Pires, or Ramos for short. Ramos has led us around this island searching for the elusive jita we have been blown away by his keen perception and observations of the local flora and fauna, and his delightful smile and sense of humor. The thing is everyone knows about this snake, most of the locals are to say the least, not exactly fond of snakes and one referred to as a “house snake” frequently comes a little too close for comfort, as you might imagine. But finding a snake when you are looking for it is entirely different matter. Our first success occurred on Bom Bom Island (not really and island, but sort of). I had just commented that the area Ramos was leading us through was too steep to find a snake, when he began excitedly shouting “snake!” only meters away. Within moments we had bagged our first jita.

There have been some rather ignominious moments for me personally. My two young compadres, Wes and Josef are willing to give me credit for catching but one jita, a dead one. The specimen had, in fact, been killed two hours earlier by a local woman who was delighted to have us remove it from along the road. This morning was the last straw. We had been combing Bom Bom Island again; Josef and Wes had taken a lower route than I and about an hour in, I heard Josef yell that they had caught a snake in the act of ripping a tail off a skink. Well and good, I thought, but where’s mine? So I am walking along, seeing snake food like skinks all over the place, when Wes and Josef come down the trail towards me. We stopped, admired the snake Josef had already bagged and the photos Wes took of it eating its skink tail, all three of us turned around…Josef stooped over and grabbed our largest jita of the expedition, about a foot behind me. I must have stepped right over it a moment beforehand. Perhaps it is not necessary to tell you that there has been much snickering among the younger members of this outfit ever since… Argh.
Josef catching Jita number five

Josef collecting a jita on Bombom. Weckerphoto GGIII
A local boy at Puerto Real

Nova Cuba, near Santo Antonio, Principe. Weckerphoto GGIII

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. More anon.