THE RACE: Our Botanists “Run The Table”

THE RACE: Our Botanists “Run The Table”

Gulf of Guinea Expedition XI is now at the  midpoint. When we arrived two weeks ago, one team stayed on the big island while our botany group proceeded almost immediately to Principe, the smaller and most ancient in the archipelago (31 myr). Two of the botanist only had a couple of weeks, and the team was entering highly inaccessible parts of the southern half of the island for the first time.  The title of this blog refers to Pico Mesa (table), the most arduous and final botany destination of GG XI.

I have decided to construct this blog report as a series of Andrew Stanbridge’s magnificent photos  made during  expeditions into four rather remote parts of Principe Island. The botanists were introduced in an earlier blog.

I.  Day hike into Morro De Leste in the Obo National Park.  A relatively easy access point into  primary forest in the northwest corner of the island.



Jim Shevock (California Academy of Sciences)


Dr. Tom Daniel (California Academy of Sciences)



II. Praia Seca to Rio Porco. A beach on the extreme south coast of Principe and hike to the ridge overlooking the Rio Porco (overnight).  There are no roads here, and the southern reaches of the island must be accessed by boat.  The botanists joined a group  researchers and trainees from the Principe Trust that was searching for individuals of the recently discovered Principe scops owl and teaching forest mapping techniques to local participants.


Traveling down the east side of the island in a boat from Belo Monte.


Dr. Cesar Garcia of the University of Lisbon.  Cesar is a specialist in bryophytes: mosses, liverworts and hornworts, as is Jim Shevock of CAS.





III.  A day expedition on the north coast-Military Caverns to Praia Banana



The field team. left to right: Balo (head guide), Dr. Tom Daniel, monkey hunters, Drs James Shevock and Cesar Garcia. Photographer Andrew Stanbridge not pictured.



IV. Assault on Pico Mesa

Route from Roca Belo Monte in the north, south to Pico Mesa by boat.



Pico Mesa. below, route from Rio Sao Tome to the mesa and back (overnight).







Below: “The Father” one of the many ancient phonolite peaks on Principe.





Above: An exhausted Dr. Cesar Garcia after reaching the summit of the mesa.





Below: Dr. Shevock in a forest of endemic screwpines (Pandanus sp.)






Below: Balo demonstrates how to stay hydrated using the jungle’s resources


Below: Dr. Shevock collects his 50,000th career sample!





Return to Belo Monte (above); below, Cesar sorting out the bryophyte collections.



Some flowers found along the way







All of the botanists  returned home at time of writing.   The next posting will be on the various activities of the remaining six expedition members.


blog-46-of-46Straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum)  Photo: Cesar Garcia


Our research and educational expeditions are supported by tax-deductable donations to the “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund.”*  On the islands, we are grateful for ongoing governmental support, and especially to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bonfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment of the 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, our “home away from home”. The upcoming GG XI has been funded in part by a generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Rod C. M. Hall, Timothy M. Muller, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, and a heartening number of “Coolies”.  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 to the Príncipe Trust for partial sponsorship of our ongoing primary school education program.

*California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Dr.
San Francisco, CA 94118


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

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

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

toes by velma

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

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

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


The Omali [Weckerphoto, GG III]

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

screw pine

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

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


Trachylepis maculilabris. [D. Lin, GG II]

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

Lygo thomensis JU III

Lygodactylus thomensis [J. Uyeda, GG II]

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

Scutellaridae true bug weck

Hemipteran true bug [Weckerphoto, GG III]

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


Common waxbill,  Estrilda astrild [Weckerphoto, GG III]

cordon bleu

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

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


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


Prinia molleri [Weckerphoto, GG III]

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


Vitelline masked weaver,  Ploceus velatus [Globaltwitchers phot]

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

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

Bat Eidolon helvum

Eidolon helvum at the Omali [RCD, GG V]

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


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

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

bats Nova Cuba

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

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

Hipposideros ruber guineaeensis

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

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

H. thomensis Lagoa Amelia

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

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


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

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

For all of you who observe them, Happy Holidays!

Here’s the Parting Shot:


The Raison d’Etre!






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, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bonfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, the support of Bastien Loloum of Zuntabawe  and Faustino Oliviera, Curator of the Herbarium at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals who have made the last three expeditions possible: George G. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murakami, Hon. Richard C. Livermore, Prof. & Mrs. Evan C. Evans III, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Taylor, Velma and Michael Schnoll, Sheila Farr Nielsen, Corinne W. Abel and Mr. and Mrs. John Sears.   Our expeditions can be supported by tax-free donations to “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund”.

The Race: A New Mammal Species for Principe!

Strange how things work sometimes!  Hard on last month’s confirmation that the São Tomé shrew, Crocidura thomensis is, indeed, a full endemic species, comes exciting news from my friend and colleague, Dr. Javier Juste, of the Estación Biológico Doñana, in Seville, Spain.

Eastern Pipistrelle. photo: Dr.  J. Scott Altenbach

Dr. Juste is a world authority on bats and has written most of the important recent literature on the species occurring on the Gulf of Guinea Islands.  Javier informs me he has just returned from an international bat conference where he heard a presentation on the evolutionary relationships among African bats of the genus  Pipistrellus.

Dr. Javier Juste B.  [photo: Estacion Biologica Donana]

Pipistrelles are rather small species within the large Family Vespertilionidae.  This presentation included samples of some bats that Javier and his colleagues collected on Príncipe during a survey along the lower reaches of the Rio Papagaio in 1988. At the time, Dr. Juste listed them as Pipistrellus sp. because he could not identify them to any known species.

This recent study confirmed that the Príncipe bat is indeed a new species and endemic to that island; It will soon be formally described by Dr. Juste and his colleagues. So within a couple of months, two species of mammals have been discovered to be unique to the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, one on each island.

Soprano pipistrelle. [phot. J. J. Kaczanow]

In earlier papers by Dr. Juste and his colleague, Dr. Carlos Ibañez have drawn attention to the fact that over 50% of the bats of both islands are endemic, but at the subspecies level. By assigning subspecies names to organisms (three names instead of two), scientists are implying that while these organisms are physically  recognizable as being different from their nearest relatives, they have not been isolated from each other long enough to become so genetically different that they can no longer interbreed.  Obviously, two subspecies of the same species cannot overlap, or any physical differences would be lost through interbreeding.  Now with molecular techniques, we can quite precisely determine levels of genetic differentiation.  So there are now two endemic species of mammals on São Tomé and Príncipe, and as our techniques progress we are likely to discover more.

Dr. Doug Long on Sao Tome. [D. Lin phot. GGI]

During GGI in 2001 our mammalogist was Dr. Douglas Long, now Professor of Biology at Saint Mary’s College in northern California. Doug collected a number of bat specimens on that first expedition, tissues from which have since become useful to Dr. Juste in his studies.

Part of GGI bat collection, Sao Tome. [RCD phot. GGI]

A student of Dr. Juste’s is currently working with some of our tissues of Eidolon, the large São Tomé fruit bat in the picture above.

In other news, Dr. Tom Daniel’s paper on the first holosaprophyte from São Tomé and Príncipe (see June blog), has just been published, and I find it fascinating that we discovered this rare plant on the Rio Papagaio, just like Dr. Juste’s new bat; it just goes to show that there is a lot of exploration still do be done and much to learn!

The parting shot:

Principe Island, looking south from Roca Papagaio.  [Weckerphoto GG III]


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, 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”.