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180 years of herps: Q&A with Luis Ceríaco on Angola’s atlas of life

Angolan Blue-Tailed Skink, Trachylepis laevis, one of the most visually striking species from Angola. Image by Luis M. P. Ceríaco.

  • Angola’s new atlas of amphibians and reptiles is a compendium of nearly 400 species recorded from thousands of scattered sources published between 1840 and 2017.
  • The atlas includes the history of research into Angola’s herpetofauna as well as detailed distribution and conservation concerns of 117 species of frogs and 278 species of reptiles currently recognized in the country.
  • By placing all available data on Angola’s herpetofauna in a single document, the atlas could serve as a tool for those interested in biodiversity conservation in the country, researchers say.
  • Mongabay spoke with Luis M.P. Ceríaco, one of the researchers involved in the project, to know more about the atlas.

All the amphibian and reptile species that have ever been recorded in Angola have now been included in a comprehensive atlas.

Covering published records from 1840 to 2017, the atlas is a compilation of information on nearly 400 species, collected from thousands of scattered sources, including old and rare publications. It includes both the history of research into Angola’s amphibians and reptiles as well as detailed distribution and conservation concerns for 117 species of frogs and 278 species of reptiles currently recognized in the country. The last such compilation of Angola’s herpetofauna, which covered a small fraction of the species known today, was published in 1895.

“This is a pioneering work for sub-Saharan Africa as no other country in the region has published such a database,” said Luis M.P. Ceríaco, head of collections of the Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto and herpetology curator at the National Museum of Natural History and Science at the University of Lisbon.

Ceríaco, whose team partnered with the Angolan Ministry of Environment’s National Institute for Biodiversity and Conservation Areas to survey the country’s herpetofauna and compile the atlas, said that by having all available data on amphibians and reptiles in a single document, the atlas could serve as a tool for those interested in biodiversity conservation in the country. It would give Angolan herpetologists a starting point for new research, Ceríaco said, by telling them not only about what’s known, but also what’s not.

“At 501 pages long, profusely documented and richly illustrated, this Atlas provides a grand guided tour through the diversity of the Angolan herpetofauna, from the most remote and spectacular places of the country,” Paula Cristina Francisco Coelho, Angola’s environment minister, wrote in the foreword to the atlas (pdf). “The methodical labor and persistence of the specialists who produced the present work, ensure that it not only contributes to scientific history, through its compilation of research already completed, but also suggests future directions for researchers and scholars devoted to the topic.”

The field surveys and compilations that went into creating the atlas revealed a number of interesting patterns. They showed areas where there weren’t any records of frogs or reptiles, for example. They also revealed that some species previously thought to be rare were actually fairly common across Angola. The striking blue mucoso agama (Agama mucosoensis), for instance, was known from only a few places in Kwanza Norte province. “After our work, the species has been spotted in dozens of localities in the Kwanza River, and appears to be the most common lizard in downtown Luanda, Angola’s capital with almost 8 million persons,” Ceríaco said.

The atlas will be presented to several members of the African Union in a ceremony in Angola later this week.

Mongabay spoke with Luis M.P. Ceríaco to learn more about the atlas.

The mucoso agama (Agama mucosoensis), once thought to be found in only a few places, is actually fairly common. Image by Luis Querido.

Mongabay: How and when did the idea of the atlas come about?

Luis M.P. Ceríaco: As soon as we started our current collaboration with the Angolan National Institute for Biodiversity and Conservation Areas in 2012, we decided that we had to do this work. There were no updated sources about the diversity and distribution of amphibians and reptiles in the country, and we needed to create such a compilation to somehow have a base from where to start.

What has been the contribution of Angolan researchers to the records within the atlas?

Since the beginning of our projects we have worked together with Angolan colleagues, from the National Institute for Biodiversity and Conservation Areas as well as from Agostinho Neto University, the main public university in the country. Angolan researchers and students had since then participated in all our field surveys, worked and published papers with us. The recent data gathered by our Angolan partners was also incorporated in the atlas.

What are some of the interesting patterns your team observed while compiling the atlas?

What was more surprising is the size of the areas where we don’t have a single herpetological record. Some of these areas are bigger than some small countries in Africa and Europe, and virtually nothing is known in terms of amphibians and reptiles from there. There is a clear bias in terms of data, which are especially concentrated in the coastal provinces, in close vicinity to the major cities and research centers. Even the national parks, for which one would think there was a basic inventory of species, many of them didn’t have a single record. Also, the majority of the species registered are known by less than five records for the entire country. This is surprising since we are talking about more than 170 years of data.

Since we started our recent surveys, it is interesting that many of these “rare” species are in fact very common and widely distributed throughout the country. Other interesting patterns are those related to biogeography. Angola is known to be a transitional country between the Western/Central African biomes in the north, and the southern African ones in the south. Many researchers and scholars dedicated themselves in the past in trying to define the boundaries of this transition zone, but without a complete set of data this proved to be very difficult. The data in the atlas give us a quite interesting and clear picture of this transition zone.

The Anchieta’s dwarf python (Python anchietae), originally described from Angola in 1887, is poorly recorded in the country. Image by Luis M.P. Ceríaco.

What, according to you, is the status of herpetological research in Angola?

Herpetological research in Angola is currently experiencing a rebirth. There were very important contributions in the past, especially those in the second half of the 19th century, which resulted in the last atlas, published in 1895 (José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage Herpétologie d’Angola et du Congo). Also some important expeditions in the first half of the 20th century and especially the extraordinary contributions of the Museu do Dundo, a museum in the extreme northeast of the country (Lunda Norte province), provided a good amount of data, with new species for science and new records for the country.

However, the start of the armed conflicts immediately after the independence of the country in 1975, which last until 2002, completely halted new research and field surveys in the country. This time was really important to herpetological research, as it encompassed the revolution of the use of molecular data to biodiversity research, which was critically important to provide a better comprehension of the true diversity of amphibians and reptiles. Currently, the country is completely pacified, and several national and international teams are conducting new field trips and studies, with many new papers describing new species and providing species checklists for different areas in the country being published at a good rate. Our atlas wants to be a tool for this new [wave] of Angolan herpetologists, helping them to have a starting point for new research, letting them know what is known, but especially what is not known.

What was the most challenging part of compiling the Atlas?

The data used for this atlas were scattered in hundreds of publications, some of them quite obscure and rare in libraries. Compiling the almost 950 references was definitely the most challenging part. Many of these publications, at first sight, had nothing to do with Angola. But here and there, in the middle of the text, they cited one species for Angola. We wanted to be as detailed and complete as possible, so we put a lot of effort on gathering bibliography.

The Angolan reed frog (Hyperolius angolensis), first described in 1867, is one of the most widespread species of reed frogs in the country. Scientists think it may actually comprise multiple species. Image by Luis M.P. Ceríaco.

How do you envision the atlas helping Angolan students, researchers, and government institutes?

This atlas provides the first updated checklist of Angolan herpetofauna, since Bocage’s 1895 original atlas, and puts together in a single document the data scattered in hundreds of publications, some of them of difficult access. Although this atlas doesn’t substitute for the reading of the original papers, by having everything compiled, it helps students/researchers/government institutes in knowing what is known, has all available distribution data for the recorded species, and directs them to the specific bibliography related to each record/species. This is extremely useful for anyone conducting new field surveys, as they can plan where to find a specific species, but also see what areas are critically needing new surveys. Also, with this data at hand, conservation agencies and government have a tool to help decision-making, as for example in defining new conservation areas or redefining those already created. Also, IUCN Red List assessments rely on this type of data, so having it compiled and available in a single document is extremely helpful for conducting Red List assessments. For any scholar who deals with Angola and sub-Saharan African biodiversity, the atlas provides a plethora of data that can be used in comparative, biogeographic and conservation studies. But especially, for Angolan students, this atlas turns the data hidden in hundreds of old bibliographic references available in a single document — which is now available in the libraries of the main academic centers in Angola, and is also freely available as a pdf online.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Currently, Angola is the only sub-Saharan African country with such a detailed atlas published. A similar work for Namibia is currently being prepared. Our current research in Angola, partnering with the Ministry of Environment of Angola, is still ongoing, and many novelties, including new species for science, are currently being prepared for publication. Regular updates to this atlas are also planned, and new books such as field guides are being prepared.

The feather-tailed gecko (Kolekanos plumicaudus), described only in 2008, is not only an endemic species but also an endemic genus in Angola. Image by Ishan Agarwal.

Banner image of an Angolan blue-tailed skink (Trachylepis laevis) by Luis M.P. Ceríaco.

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