Parataxonomy: Research takeaways from a summer experience in Costa Rica

Updated: Mar 5

This summer, I helped with research in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northern Costa Rica with the parataxonomist program, led by renowned ecologists Dr. Daniel Janzen and Dr. Winnie Hallwachs. The parataxonomist program is a prime example of an inclusive, sustainable solution that has benefited scientific discovery while supporting the local community and the restoration and conservation of one of the most biodiverse places in the world.




Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia, covering about 0.03% of the planet's surface. Yet, it is estimated to contain 6% of the world's biodiversity, about as much as the United States and Canada combined. This is largely due to the country's location: it is sandwiched between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and helps form the bridge between North and South America. The ACG is a federally protected area located in the northwest portion of the country. The area covers 163,000 hectares, or 2% of Costa Rica. This includes four major ecosystems: marine, dry forest, rainforest, and cloud forest, and holds an estimated 700,000 species. It is one of the world's largest tropical forest restoration projects.



Unsurprisingly, this area is a hub for biodiversity research and species discovery for students, scientists, and parataxonomists alike. The nine weeks I spent consisted of working with the parataxonomists, which was largely focused on the collection of butterfly and moth larvae, their parasites, and samples of the plants they were eating when we found them. The larvae were reared until adulthood, while observations of the process were noted in an online database. The adult butterflies/moths were collected and sent to Dr. Janzen and Dr. Hallwachs, who sorted and mounted them. Before sending them to the Smithsonian Institution collection, a leg from select butterflies/moths is sent to Dr. Paul Hebert's team in Canada to process a DNA barcode to verify/identify the species. DNA barcoding is a flawless taxonomical process, it uses a short section of a species' DNA to create a barcode, which avoids identification mistakes. These codes are currently being organized by a project called BioAlfa which aims to eventually create an online DNA barcode library of Costa Rica's entire biodiversity and make it available to the public.



If you are unfamiliar with the term "parataxonomist" it's because it was coined by Dr. Janzen himself. Think of a paramedic; someone specialized to provide a timely amount of medical help before the patient gets to a hospital. Parataxonomists are on-site workers that do specific, local, and timely taxonomy work. I quickly learned however, that these people who mostly lack education past elementary school, are nowhere near "less qualified" as many see them. In fact, after 30 years of repetitive local research, the parataxonomists know far more about local biodiversity than visiting scientists from around the world.


The majority of my time was spent at the San Gerardo Biological Station, where I worked with four longtime parataxonomists: Elda, Osvaldo, Gloria, and Carolina. None of them graduated elementary school, yet they know every plant and butterfly in the rainforest behind the station. Elda is the most experienced and most effective collecter. She became the first out of 43 parataxonomists when she began collecting caterpillars for Dr. Janzen in 1987 on the farm she previously worked on. Osvaldo celebrated his 29 years as a parataxonomist while I was there. He was previously a fisherman, and was recruited by Dr. Janzen a few years after his brother, who is the botanist of the group. He has such a good eye that he would slam on the brakes of the little Suzuki to go collect a certain caterpillar he needs that he saw on a leaf while driving. He met his longtime partner Gloria when they began working together. Gloria is Elda's niece, and first heard about the program from her aunt when babysitting her kids. Today, she can't recall how many parasitic wasps she has named after her. Carolina would show me caterpillars in the forest, rattling off the scientific names with the same enthusiasm she had when she began years ago.


These people are truly specialists in what they do; they live in a village only 20 minutes from the station and know the forest like the back of their hands. Many of their personal relationships have developed around the parataxonomist program, and their kids have grown up in the stations. Today, they continue to find new species of caterpillars, meaning that the exciting aspect of their work never dies. Caterpillars are the main focus, but they have also researched plants, frogs, birds, rats, and jaguars. When I asked them what they loved most about their job, they said it was teaching others: from training other parataxonomists to sharing their knowledge with their neighbors and children.



This passion for nature and sharing goes beyond the parataxonomists' individual experience. Many locals in the Guanacaste province are uneducated on nature and are therefore unwilling to interact with it. For example, former logger turned parataxonomist Jose told me about the belief among rural people that jaguars eat people, with a particular liking for pregnant women. Of course, this is false: jaguars in Guanacaste are shy and tend to avoid people. Nonetheless, this leads to the persecution of jaguars and other wild felines by farmers and the avoidance of interacting with the forest among villagers. Another example is hunting, a tradition among many locals. Some hunters see the protection of the area as a personal attack, and are the leading cause of forest fires; they set them to distract rangers so they can poach. With education provided by parataxonomists to their communities, biophilia can take its effect, and threats to nature by local people are reduced. People become aware and curious of their work and appreciate to know the importance of their homes within the natural world. To ensure that future generations understand the importance of biodiversity in the ACG, there is also a formal biology program where elementary school children learn about the basic ecology of their homes, and visit the various biological stations to learn from parataxonomists. Since the communities are so tight-knit, many of these children personally knew the parataxonomists and would pay special attention.



“We must move to admission of the necessity for dedicated and self-interested staff for the institution called a conserved wildland, and sustain the cost of generating these kinds of personnel and giving them responsibility for all relevant processes”
- Dr. Daniel Janzen





Educated scientists typically fail to include locals in research work because they see them as unqualified. Some biologists also see parataxonomists as competition and think it is unfair that they are given scientific work despite lacking education. However, a parataxonomists spends years in the same place doing the same task, which makes them arguably more qualified to do such specific research, which is also different from how biologists conduct research. Parataxonomists in the ACG have discovered 10,000 species, all while creating communal appreciation through sharing knowledge. This discovery has captured international attention which also brings attention to and helps sustain the restoration and conservation projects in the area. The parataxonomy model is one that could be adapted anywhere in the world, and has proven to be an effective and lasting method.


The Área de Conservación Guanacaste is a thriving system, all while creating jobs and education through the empowerment of the local community to lead in conservation efforts. This success has been possible through the strong leadership, vision, and will of Dr. Janzen and Dr. Hallwachs. This has fostered passion and knowledge: fundamental aspects for research and conservation alike, and worth sharing.



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