Gulf of Guinea Islands Biodiversity Project
What We Are Doing.
Surprisingly, São Tomė and Príncipe have remained largely unstudied since the early 19th Century work of Portuguese biologists Fea, Greef and Newton. In spite of the wonderful but preliminary stuff discovered by these early biologists, São Tomė and Príncipe have remained “off the scientific beaten path”. Historically, the islands were used as major slave entrepots by the Portuguese and were of world importance in the production of sugar, coffee and then cacao. Lying 200 to 250 km off the coast of West African coast, the islands have always been rather remote, and even to this day, there is but one flight per week from Europe to São Tomė (via Lisbon) and only a couple from Libreville, Gabon. In spite of several hundred years of agricultural efforts, fairly large amounts of original forest remain in higher elevations that were simply too steep to be cultivated by the colonials. While the birds have been studied and a preliminary flora has been published, huge portions of the biodiversity of these unique islands remain completely unknown.
So what we are doing is the most basic work in science; we are hiking into these remaining natural areas and surveying them to find out what species live there, what their evolutionary relationships are and where they came from. Depending upon our different specialties, we work both by day and by night, collecting, sampling, photographing, recording, etc. Most of our material is brought back to the California Academy of Sciences for study, but much also goes out to specialists around the world. As systematists, our job is to explore and sample all of the elements of the fauna and flora. When new species are discovered, we must analyze and describe them. Systematics is the fundamental discipline upon which all other biological work depends, especially including conservation efforts. You cannot save what you do not know.
Herpetofauna of Myanmar
Most of our current understanding of the Burmese herpetofauna is based on the efforts of British officials and scientists during Britain's colonial occupation of the country and was summarized in, The Fauna of British India. As the title suggests, its focus was the Indian subcontinent but included fauna ranging from Sri Lanka to Myanmar and Thailand.
At the onset of this current project, about 350 amphibian and reptile species had been documented from Myanmar, which is certainly an underestimation of actual number of species. Given the confluence of three distinct biogeographic units and the expected high rate of endemism as well as the near-complete lack of structured herpetological surveys, we predict that the total number of species to be found in Myanmar will be closer to 500.
In 1999, the National Science Foundation funded a joint collaboration between the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division, Forestry Department of Myanmar, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Smithsonian Institution (DEB 9971861) to inventory the amphibian and reptile species of Myanmar for three years. The core of the project is specimen-based surveys conducted primarily by a trained field team chosen from employees of the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division, Forest Department. It represents the first systematic herpetological survey to be conducted in the country, and certainly, the first to be conducted primarily by Myanmar Forestry Department staff.
The goals of the Myanmar Herpetological Survey Project are:
1. To make collections of specimens, tissues samples, and associated data to document and understand the diversity of the Myanmar herpetofauna and its relationships to the fauna of contiguous regions;
2. To provide training to employees of the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division in systematics, herpetology, conservation biology, and biodiversity survey techniques;
3. To provide the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division with data, reports, and publications to help them understand and conserve their own biodiversity;
4. To help the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division develop the newly founded Myanmar Biodiversity Museum;
5. To promote and sustain a resurgence of organismal biology in Myanmar.
China Natural History Project - Yunnan
As part of a global, collaborative effort to preserve biodiversity in China, the California Academy of Sciences launched the China Natural History Project (CNHP) in May 1998. The pilot project of CNHP involved a biodiversity survey of the Gaoligong Shan region of northwestern Yunnan Province. Many new species of plants and spiders were discovered during the expedition and future scientific discoveries were promising.
In June 2000, Academy botanists, entomologists, ichthyologists, and a herpetologist and mammalogist returned to join their colleagues from Yunnan to undertake further biodiversity survey work. The international team is treading new ground in the relatively unstudied mid-elevation Dulongjiang forests of northwest Yunnan, the borderland next to Myanmar (formerly Burma). Results of the field work will be of major interest to policy-makers, conservationists, students and scholars.
Because of its concentrations of ancient and recent endemic species, it is theorized that the region of study is an isolated paleoenvironment that has remained remarkably stable through the climatological changes brought about by the Miocene collision of the Indian tectonic plate with East Asia. It is likely that dramatic mountain building caused periodic isolation of the Dulong Valley region and the creation of new niches for distinct species.
Contact the department
Dr. Drewes Gulf of Guinea Blog
The Importance of Natural History Collections
CAS Special Publication: The Coral Triangle - The 2011 Hearst Philippine Biodiversity Expedition
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