Blog Post

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

The rugged wild landscape of Príncipe Island as seen from above. Even though this island is smaller than Brooklyn, it hosts dozens of species found nowhere else on Earth. Photo by Andrew Stanbridge.

Bell holds a 40-year-old gopher tortoise at Archbold Biological Research Station, Florida. Photograph by Kelly Zamudio

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.


Into Africa's Eden

The pace of life in the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe is perhaps best encapsulated by the local saying “leve leve,” which roughly translates to “slow and easy.” And with a total population of fewer than 200,000 people and only one flight a week between the former Portuguese colony and Lisbon, daily life in this equatorial country has continued with minimal interruption for decades.

Much of the islands’ natural habitat remains intact and hosts some of the highest levels of endemism (species that are found nowhere else) on the planet. With the recent discovery of offshore oil, however, the São Toméans will soon face the challenge of reconciling rapid economic development with preserving their natural heritage. The problem is that no one knows how many species occupy the islands or how irreplaceable that diversity might be, and this is what inspired the “island biodiversity race.”

For the past ten years, Bob Drewes, Curator of Herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences, has led a team of biologists in a race to document the diversity of animals, plants, and fungi on the islands. So far, the team has recorded hundreds of species, many of which are new to science and can only be found on a single island. Even though we’re starting to make a dent in describing the islands’ biodiversity, the lifestyles of all these species are largely unknown, which can be problematic for conservation planning.

For example, the island of Príncipe hosts Africa’s largest treefrog species, but no one has ever seen where it breeds or what its tadpoles look like, information necessary to identify the habitats this species relies on. Finding those tadpoles and learning more about how to ensure their survival is one the many scientific goals for our upcoming expedition to the islands.

The Dream Team

This year’s expedition lineup is a multi-national crew that studies everything from mosses (Jim Shevock), flowering plants (Tom Daniel), and lichens (Miko Nadel), to jumping spiders (Tamas Szuts) and amphibians (Bob Drewes and Rayna Bell – that’s me). We will spend several weeks surveying the rugged terrain of the islands, in search of our respective study organisms.

In my case, I’m hoping to find the elusive tadpoles of Príncipe’s giant treefrogs and to collect DNA samples to study hybridization between two endemic treefrogs on São Tomé. Other members of our team specialize in groups that are even more poorly known than the islands’ amphibians, and they are likely to discover dozens of new species during the expedition.

In addition to gathering scientific data, a central focus of the “biodiversity race” is communicating our results to the São Toméans through local media and community outreach, including educational presentations in primary schools. During last year’s expedition, the team distributed nearly 2,000 coloring books to help local third graders learn about the amazing plants and animals that can only be found on their islands. This year, Bob and several colleagues will revisit the same schools to talk about our most recent discoveries and distribute biodiversity card games.

Working in these living laboratories for evolution is a biologist’s dream come true, and we can’t wait to get started!

One of many species endemic to São Tomé and Principe, the São Tomé Giant Reedfrog breeds in water-filled tree hole cavities and is currently only known from a single tree on the peak of São Tomé. Photo by Andrew Stanbridge.

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