The Race: Worth Two in the Bush…. Part II

Note: This blog and the preceding one are dedicated to the memory of our friend Bill Bowes, of the William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, who graciously lent his personal encouragement to and support for the GG IX, X and XI expeditions. We of the Gulf of Guinea team and the California Academy of Sciences will miss him very, very much.

for blog (Tchin-tchin-tcholó)-PraiaJalé

The São Tomé weaver (Ploceus sanctithomae] is a forest species known only from the big island. Phot. P. Loureiro.
During Gulf of Guinea IX, two years ago, our education effort was focused on the endemic bird species of both islands; as mentioned before, the bird fauna is hugely important; the two islands have perhaps the highest number of unique bird species by area in the world, 28 endemics/1000km ².

bird education

The São Tomé Prinia. (Prinia molleri). The “Truqui” is found only on the big island and is probably the most common endemic species there (top photo. P. Loureiro.) As we visited the classrooms, each student got a pair of plastic binoculars (they work!), and our booklet that highlights some of the most beautiful species on both islands and their natural history (above, left and right. phots by A. Stanbridge).

exellence patches

And, expedition patches are given by the teachers to 10 students who do the best work each year. (photo by A. Stanbridge, above)

Our intent is always to instill in the kids a sense of ownership for these species for their uniqueness and beauty: “No one else has these, even on the other island!”  The image below was taken by our senior educator, Roberta Ayres, but it might have been made anywhere little kids play. Regardless, we never preach in our classroom presentations; we present the species of the flora and fauna as rare and beautiful.

Ayers, Nova Moca GG IV

Our Gulf of Guinea Islands project is indeed multiplex, and some of the most interesting scientific discoveries in past years have been made by graduate students in pursuit of higher degrees.

10_Me and Ricardo ringing the Ploceus grandis. This was during a teaching couse we were giving to our field guides. Extiment is noticeable (at least mine)

Recently, Ana P. Coelho (above middle), received her MSc degree in conservation biology from the University of Lisbon; her thesis advisor was our long-time colleague, Dr. Ricardo Lima (left), whose earlier PhD thesis was also based on the island ecology.

0_Our field guide (Octavio) extracting a bird mistnetted

Field assistant Octavio, mist-nettng (A. Coelho phot.)
Ana studied the roles of birds in dispersing seeds on São Tomé.  Some 18 species of birds, all endemic, were systematically mist-netted (above), and ring-banded (below). Their droppings were studied over time to determine what seeds the fruit-eating (frugivorous) species were eating. The field/data collection part of the study was several months in duration.

14_Me ringing an otus hartlaubi

Ana banding an endemic  São Tomé scops owl , Otus hartlaubi. (A. Carvalho phot)

Of the 18 species captured and released, nine were frugivorous, and Ana showed that the great majority of seeds they ate were in the fruit of endemic or native plant species.  Some species of non-native plants were ingested and dispersed as well.

seed 1 oriole

Birds of larger size (and thus larger beak gape) eat larger fruit (above).

This relationship among endemics makes evolutionary sense. We know that the accumulation of genetic (and morphological) change leading to the evolution of new species takes isolation and time. This is as true for the consumer (the birds) as it is for the energy source (the fruit of the plants). So one can suggest that the birds and the seed plants upon which they feed co-evolved over thousands of years. The birds benefit from the fruits of the plants and in turn, the plants’ seeds are carried to distant environments (along with fertilizer) in the bird droppings.

seed 2 speirops

The São Tomé speirops  (above) is by far the most frequent seed disperser; Ana found this endemic produced 84% of all droppings containing seeds. .

However, it should be noted that in this case, the birds are also responsible for a rather difficult conservation issue. Through seed dispersal of endemic plants, they are contributing to native forest regeneration,  but because they also disperse a number of non-native plant species, the birds are also involved in biological invasion – the spread of alien species..

Above is an additional endemic predator/prey relationship: a São Tomé house snake ingesting a São Tomé giant tree frog; both species are endemic to the big island. (Matthias Neumann phot. )

Another recent graduate student contributor to our scientific knowledge of Gulf of Guinea biology is Matthias Neumann (below), who recently completed his MSc in biology at the University of Kassel in Germany.


(M. Neumann phot)

Matthias spent a couple of months in the islands last year collecting and studying geoclads (flatworms), many species of which are known to be predatory on snails.
We have made the point in earlier blogs that these flatworms are potentially very important because the land snail fauna of both islands is over 70% unique, and if these flatworms are recent arrivals, they may pose a real danger to the existence of the endemic snails.  Prior to Matthias’ field investigations almost nothing was known about the island flatworm fauna except for some random observations by some of us working in the forests (see earlier blogs).


Mathias (left) with field assistant, Lionel; a geoclad feeding on a terrestrial snail (right). M. Neumann phots.
Matthias was successful in completing his degree, and his work has recently been published: Sluys R., M. Neumann, R.F. de Lima, & R, C. Drewes. 2017. Land flatworms (Platyhelminthes, Geoplanidae) of São Tomé: a first account on their diversity, with the description of five new species. Zootaxa 4221 (3): 291–322.


Matthias estimates that there at least as many additional undescribed flatworm species on the islands awaiting identification and study.  Two of the species he has discovered so far are definitely snail predators. If these two species are long-time inhabitants of the islands, it is likely they have co-evolved with their snail prey, a situation probably not unlike the endemic bird/endemic plant relationship studied by Ana Coelho. There is so much more to be learned in these islands.

kids combo
As Ana’s and Matthias’s photos above suggest, both of these young scholars are born naturalists, interested in a wide range of living species. The images include a freshwater blenny, a freshwater shrimp, a São Tomé house snake and a giant sunbird, all endemic or native to the islands.

The Parting Shot:

Cesar on P

Dr. Cesar Garcia, of Lisbon, working on Principe. Fieldwork is always exhausting, occasionally painful but forever a joy!
Our research and educational expeditions are supported by tax-deductable donations to the “California Academy of Sciences Gulf of Guinea Fund*.” We are grateful for ongoing governmental support from the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, and especially to Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, Victor Bonfim, and Salvador Sousa Pontes of the Ministry of Environment and to Faustino de Oliviera of the Department of Forestry 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”. GG IX, X and XI have been funded in part by a generous grant from The William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, and substantial donations from Rod C. M. Hall, Mr. and Mrs. Henri Lese, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Sullivan Jr., Mr. and Mrs. John Sears, in memory of Paul Davies Jr. and a heartening number of Bohemian friends. We are grateful for the support of the Omali Lodge (HBD-São Tomé) and Roça Belo Monte (Africa’s Eden-Príncipe) for both logistics and lodging.
*California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Dr.
San Francisco, CA 94118


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.

Photos - 4086

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.

GGVII Photos  - 748

  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!

GGVII Photos  - 801


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.

GGVII Photos  - 804

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


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.

GGVII Photos  - 803

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

 GGVII Photos  - 782

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.


 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,

Tamas - 041

Tamas - 106

Tamas - 065

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:

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

Here’s the parting shot:


Satocao workers returning from cacao plantation V. Schnoll phot GG VII


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, 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: Bad News/Good News/Sigh of Relief

I have some bad news (maybe) and some good news:

The image below is what might be our bad news.  During GG III after the zoologists returned to Príncipe, our botanists and mycologists, Tom, Rebecca, Dennis and Brian did a little more work on the big island before flying home.  The photo below was taken by Dr. Brian Perry on one of their last days on the islands, and I just learned of this discovery. The first image is of pods on a cacao tree by the roadside near a place called Bombaim, in mountainous central São Tomé.  The cacao pods may be infested with a fungal pathogen known as frosty pod rot, Monilophthera roreri.  This is a tentative identification by Brian and Dennis.

Frosty Pod Rot near Bombaim, Sao Tome Island.  B. Perry phot – GG III

Cacao (or cocoa, the source of chocolate) is native to Central America and was brought first to Príncipe in the 1820’s by the Portuguese.  During the Portuguese era the cacao industry on the islands was the largest in the world; based largely on slave labor, the industry declined at the end of the slave trade, and new plantations were established in Ghana by Cadburys, the one of the main European buyers and producers of chocolate. While the industry is now much reduced, it is still important to the economy of the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe.

Healthy cacao pods on Sao Tome.  D. Lin Phot. GG II

Frosty pod rot has devastated the cocoa industry in Central America from Mexico to Panama for over 50 years causing up to 80% crop losses in some localities.  What we do not know is whether the growers of São Tomé and Príncipe know of the presence of this pathogen on the islands yet; we have just sent this picture together with the precise locality data to our friends in the Ministry of the Environment to alert them.  We are hoping the authorities are already aware of the threat and have taken steps to deal with it. The whole frosty pod rot story can be found here:

(addendum 12/2009!)

A sigh of relief
… for São Tomé cocoa producers and chocolate lovers world-wide.  We have just learnt from Ulrike Krauss that the suspected frosty pod rot on the photo taken near Bombaim is almost certainly either cherelle wilt or a pod mummified by secondary invaders following black pod rot, caused by Phytophthora sp, but not frosty pod rot.  To date (December 2009), there is no confirmed record of the frosty pod rot pathogen, Moniliophthora roreri, in any of the cocoa-producing countries of the Old World.
Ulrike Krauss points out, however, that the threat of introduction is to be taken very seriously by authorities, as this pathogen is both highly invasive and extremely destructive.  Natural spread from the Americas to the Old World is unlikely.  Human vectoring, e.g. via cocoa germplasm, pods or beans, is the greatest risk, but the microscopic spores of the pathogen can also adhere to clothing and hair of anybody arriving from infested areas.

Alex Kim at Intel Awards – Media photo.

 The good news is that Alex Kim, our high school colleague in Virginia who has been working on freshwater shrimp took 7th place at the 2009 Intel Science Talent Search. This is a remarkable achievement as the finalists included 40 of the most highly talented kids in the country.  He is continuing his study of our São Tomé prawns and will keep us informed of his results; frankly I have a feeling we will be hearing a lot about this young man for years to come. Here is the url with descriptions of the projects, including Alex’s: 

Snakes are next in a return to “Slytherin”

The parting shot.

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, Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, Director General, and Victor Bomfim, Salvador Sousa Pontes and Danilo Bardero of the Ministry of Environment, Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe for permission to export specimens for study, and the continued support of Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico and Faustino Oliviera, Director of the botanical garden at Bom Sucesso. Special thanks for the generosity of private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom, Timothy M. Muller, Mrs. W. H. V. Brooke and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Murkami for helping make these expeditions possible.