The Race Goes on: News from the Flower People
As I mentioned yesterday, the first two botanists to join one our GG expeditions are Dr. Tom Daniels of CAS Botany Department and one of his graduate students, Rebecca Wenk. Both are specialists on a large family of tropical herbs called the Acanthaceae. Can’t give you a common name, sorry.
Dr. Tom Daniel and Rebecca Wenk among the Baobabs at Laguna Azul, Sao Tome. GG III (Weckerphoto)
There is already a book on the flora of the islands written by a man named A.W. Exell many years ago but there are still many groups that are poorly known on Sao Tome and Principe, including Tom’s and Rebecca’s acanths, and there is always the possibility of finding something new. Although these data are old, it is estimated that the flowering plants of Sao Tome and Principe are between 8 and 14% endemic, found nowhere else in the world. The numbers are a range because it depends upon which island and plant family you are talking about, but the endemicity is high.
Tom and Rebecca have been working side by side with the cugumelo team but have been pressing and drying their plants at the small herbarium at Bom Sucesso, which is at about 1000 meters on the island of Sao Tome. The herbarium and delightful botanical gardens of Bom Sucesso were first built with support by ECOFAC, but now run by a local NGO called Monte Pico; their specialty is the endemic orchids, and there are guides for tours of the gardens, as well as guides available for hikes up into the “real” primary vegetation above. Our old friend, Bastien Loulomb, has been an advisor to Bom Sucesso and Monte Pico for a long time and has been of consistent help to me on the GG II and GG III expeditions.
The gang at Bom Successo with Bastien Loloumb of Monte Pico. GG III (Weckerphoto)
I have always teased my botanical colleagues about the funny hats they wear in the field, and the fact that they never seem to get dirty like us herpetologists. Well, funny hats are a given (see the photo) but Tom and Rebecca get just as dirty as the rest of us. So far they seem to have collected whole samples, tissue for DNA and for karyotyping of all of the known endemics of their group, but have also collected great samples of a lot of other peculiar things, including the world’s largest Begonia, B. ebaccata, which grows to nearly 10 meters on Sao Tome. All duplicates collected by our botanists will reside at Bom Sucesso in the Herbarium.
Largest in the world. Begonia baccata at Laguna Azul, Sao Tome. GG III
Tom at Bom Success. GG III (Weckerphoto)
A high point was when Rebecca finally found an example of her “questing beast,” a tiny little acanth growing along the side of track up Pico Papagaio on Principe. She let out a loud shriek and dove to the ground. I wish I could remember the name of the thing, but Tom and Rebecca are on there way back the US as I write. Apparently, she needed sequence data from this little plant critter in order to “root the tree” of her current MSc thesis (the scientists among you will understand). Here’s a photo of her with her discovery.
Rebecca finds her critter! Principe GG III (Weckerphoto)
Rebecca's critter. Pico Papagaio, Principe GG III (Weckerphoto)
Finally, thanks to SCD a couple of weeks ago, we were offered a boat ride to the inaccessible southwest coast of Principe The southwest exposures of all of the islands in this chain, Bioko, Principe, Sao Tome and Annobon are inaccessible by land because they receive the brunt of the incoming weather, hence erosive force comes from the southwest. For the same reason the Portuguese were unable to cultivate these areas during their 500 years of colonization here and on each island these exposures are pretty much untouched by man. In one sense the trip was a near disaster; our small rubber dingy flipped and a lot of our equipment was compromised, most of it temporarily. But the mushroom guys were able to collect a bunch of stuff on a virtually untouched steep slope, and Tom and Rebecca were able to establish that the dominant plant group in the southwest of Principe is the Rubiaceae, members of the coffee family.
We are posting a bunch of images, mostly by Wes Eckerman, that are unlabeled. The reason for this is that in many cases we do not know yet what the stuff is. Stay tuned.
A fisherman at Laguna Azul, Sao Tome. GG III (Weckerphoto)
Next will be posting on my stuff, the creepy crawlies.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Research Investment Fund of the California Academy of Sciences, the Société de Conservation et Développement (SCD) for logistics, ground transportation and lodging, STePUP of Sao Tome http://www.stepup.st/ and especially the generosity of three private individuals, George F. Breed, Gerry F. Ohrstrom and Timothy M. Muller, for making GG III possible.