The island of Príncipe is ancient… at 31 million years of age it is twice as old as São Tomé, yet biologically the two islands are unquestionably related. Along with documenting and describing hitherto unknown species of strange, endemic plants and animals that inhabit one or the other island (rarely, both), we attempt to understand the relationships of these species to each other and to their ancestral populations from the African mainland.
For instance among the striking Príncipe uniques is Leptopelis palmatus, the Príncipe giant tree frog (above). Females of this species attain dimensions such that they are largest tree frog in Africa! Males, first described by us, are usually less than half their length. The original specimen upon which the species description was based over a century ago was a single female of 110mm body length (excluding legs). Like all female frogs, they do not have an advertisement call and despite their great size, very few have been found and reported in the scientific literature.
A few days ago, Dr. Rayna Bell found the large female pictured above, pressed to the surface of a small flat rock on the ground on a steep, dryish slope in the northwestern part of the island. Females tend to be dark compared to males, but this is the first all-black specimen reported. There are three other tree frog species on the islands, but they are all closely related to each other and belong to a different frog family from the Príncipe giant.
Dr Bell has shown that these other three are most closely related to a species from the Ogooué and Congo River basins and thus likely of western Central African origin. Other work has shown that the nearest relative of Leptopelis palmatus of Príncipe is from west of the Niger River and thus the giant is probably of northern (West African) origin, perhaps dispersing from the Niger River drainage..
Dr. Luis Mendes and Maria Jeronimo have continued to collect butterflies to fill in knowledge gaps with species for Luis’s book. Luis has collected a number of specimens that he cannot readily identify; on these poorly-known islands, this is particularly exciting.
Maria has actually been doing a lot of everything: collecting butterflies with Luis, joining us in the classrooms and going out at night collecting with Dr. Rayna Bell, Lauren Scheinberg and our photographer, Andrew Stanbridge. Considering that this is a “break” from her PhD dissertation work, her energy level is truly impressive.
Most geckos are nocturnal but the genus Lygodactylus is comprised of strictly daytime species in Africa and Madagascar. Readers may recall that the islands of Annobon, São Tomé and Príncipe are each inhabited by a single endemic species usually distinguishable by different black markings under the chin; other than these markings, the island species are usually a combination of grey and black. Luis Mendes captured an adult male on Príncipe that appears to be in breeding coloration of a sort I have not seen before in this genus. There is one species endemic to a small forest in Tanzania that is a beautiful blue, several others in East Africa that have yellow heads, and one species in Zambia that has a yellow belly. The male collected on Principe has a bright yellow head and the body that is a striking shade of light green. Not only is this the first time I have observed a green individual, I am also unaware of any literature describing temporary (usually hormonal) color intensities associated with breeding activities in this group of lizards.
Many of the photos we post on social media might well suggest that our work is being carried out in some sort of paradise; in some ways it is exactly that but is by no means easy!
The work we do here is only possible with the support of local entities; this is especially true on Príncipe. On our first two expeditions years ago we had difficulty finding suitable accommodations (reliable power for our equipment, etc) and logistics; there were not many available vehicles on the island, and we had little access to the really interesting higher elevation areas of the island or more remote southern areas. Since that time, our efficiency has increased hugely due to the generous support of several organizations on the old island. First and foremost is the Office of the Regional President (Tose Cassandra-he is also head of the recently created Principe World Biosphere Reserve, and also Daniel Ramos, head of the Príncipe Obo Natural Park.
For a number of years, we have been able to stay at Bom Bom Island resort which has also helped with needed transportation, both vehicular and marine. This year we were invited to stay at the new Roça Belo Monte (Africa’s Eden) who also provided transportation and assistance. At one point we planned a boat trip to explore the remote southeastern part of the island but the skipper, Bobby Bronkhorst, of Makaira Lodge fell ill.
Our work is now also in cooperation with the newly formed Príncipe Trust; the Trust played a major supporting role in the production of this year’s biodiversity bird field guide/coloring book and binoculars! Our biodiversity education efforts were concluded for Gulf of Guinea IX here on the old island with our return to the 3rd grade classes of the same schools we have been visiting since 2011. Usually after class visits, we see 3rd graders out in the bush peering through their new binoculars but frequently backwards! This may well be more fun for them.
We are most grateful to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bomfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for their continuing authorization to collect and export specimens for study, and to Ned Seligman, Roberta dos Santos and Quintino Quade of STePUP of Sao Tomehttp://www.stepup.st/, our “home away from home”.We gratefully acknowledge the support of the G. Lindsay Field Research Fund, Hagey Research Venture Fund of the California Academy of Sciences for largely funding our initial two expeditions (GG I, II). The Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) and Africa’s Eden provided logistics, ground transportation and lodging (GG III-V), and special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who made the GG III-VII expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll, and Sheila Farr Nielsen; GG VI supporters include Bom Bom Island and the Omali Lodge for logistics and lodging, The Herbst Foundation, The “Blackhawk Gang,” the Docent Council of the California Academy of Sciences in honor of Kathleen Lilienthal, Bernard S. Schulte, Corinne W. Abel, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, John S. Livermore and Elton Welke. GG VIII was funded by a very generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Mrs. W.H.V.“D.A.” Brooke, Thomas B. Livermore, Rod C. M. Hall, Timothy M. Muller, Prof. and Mrs. Evan C. Evans, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Clarence G. Donahue, Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, and a heartening number of “Coolies”, “Blackhawk Gang” returnees and members of the Academy Docent Council. Once again we are deeply grateful for the support of the Omali Lodge (São Tomé) and Roça Belo Monte (Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging and for partially sponsoring part our education efforts for GG VII and GG VIII.
Our expeditions can be supported by tax-deductable donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”