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How Coloring Books & Playing Cards Can Help Save Rare Speicies

A third-grader at the main primary school in São Tomé with his biodiversity coloring book. The education team distributed these to over 2000 students across São Tomé and Príncipe in 2012. Photo by Andrew Stanbridge.

With the recent discovery of offshore oil, São Toméans will soon face the challenge of reconciling rapid economic development with preserving their natural heritage. Young Explorer Rayna Bell will return to the island with a team of expert scientists to discover just how many species occupy the habitat and how rare and irreplaceable they might be.


For most biologists that work in poorly explored parts of the world, there is nothing quite like the thrill of finding a plant or animal that is undoubtedly new to science. Bob Drewes and his colleagues at the California Academy of Sciences are no exception to this rule and so far they have described several new species of frogs, lizards, fishes, mosses and barnacles from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. These species join a growing list of plants, animals, and fungi that are found nowhere else on earth but after over a decade of extensive field surveys and over 20 scientific publications, Bob realized that the results of this work weren’t reaching the people who need this information most: the islands’ inhabitants.

To start spreading awareness about the uniqueness of the islands’ plants and animals, Bob and science educators Roberta Ayres and Velma Schnoll distributed hundreds of posters in 2011 that feature well-known local species with the heading “Somente Aqui” (Only Here). They also met with educators to design biodiversity teaching materials that would complement the primary school curriculum. The end products are simple, but brilliant: lesson plans that build from a coloring book and deck of cards that feature endemic species.

The “only in São Tomé and Príncipe” playing cards. The black suits feature plants and animals endemic to São Tomé Island and the red suits feature species endemic to Príncipe Island.

Bringing Together Biodiversity Research with Education

As a graduate student with interests in evolutionary biology and biodiversity conservation, participating in Bob’s research and education expeditions has been an incredible experience for me. Although my main goal for these expeditions is to find two species of treefrogs I’m studying, in 2012 I tagged along with the education team to help distribute coloring books to over 2000 third-graders. This year we distributed playing cards to the same students and taught them how to play the game “memory”. Everyone wanted to try their luck at finding a species match, (including the deputy director of primary schools!) and I’m convinced that the card game, and biodiversity awareness, will spread to friends and family for years to come.

The education team (Bob Drewes, Roberta Ayres, and Velma Schnoll) with a third grade class in São Tomé. Photo by Andrew Stanbridge.

NEXT: Racing Against the Clock to Document Biodiversity in Africa’s Eden

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