Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund – GDFCF (2013)

Guanacaste Parataxonomist Program

Project Details

Grant Amount: $200,000
Contact: Daniel Janzen
Contact Email: djanzen 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 12/15/13 - 12/14/15

This is a follow-on grant from a previous project in 2011. Read about the original project here.


GDFCF is the primary conservation NGO for 165,000 hectare Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica. GDFCF’s sole mission is that the biodiversity of ACG (2.4% of world) survives indefinitely, and simultaneously serves as a global model of conserved wildlands managed by its human residents through its and their integration with society. GDFCF is a technical advisor, coach, and cheerleader to ACG’s entire 150+ member Costa Rican resident staff, with an intense focus on the Parataxonmist Program and the Programa de Educacion Biologica.

This project aimed to continue the intensely innovative development of the JRS‐supported ACG web site as a permanent and expanding, encyclopedic, science‐based biodiversity information resource for all users across all of society. The project planned to simultaneously continue the intense mentoring and cheerleading of the entire ACG 39‐member Parataxonomist Program (in the field and at INBio) for ongoing improvements to the quality of the computerized and image‐enriched biodiversity inventory specimen records (20,000‐40,000/year) flowing into the ACG public web site, into the steadily improving University of Pennsylvania public web site, and into the biodiversity taxasphere via journal and web publications, museum‐deposited voucher specimens, and their associated databases. The effort demonstrated the role and relevance of knowing what biodiversity is in a large tropical conserved wildland, what it does, where it is, and how to find it. The project was conducted by local staff (more than 150 ACG staff) with minimal formal educations, as a career in biodiversity management.

Key Objectives and Activities

Objective 1: Continue the JRS‐supported and ever‐growing demonstration that a large conserved tropical wildland web site can be an enormous public encyclopedia of that biodiversity. This web site is:

  • Adjusted to the ever‐growing ability of the 34 parataxonomists to gather ACG data and specimens,
  • Massaged and presented according to the needs of both the academic taxasphere and the Costa Rican (and other) lay public that is a steady browser and user of that information (including 2,500+ school children per year), and
  • Augmented by the new innovative directions given by the project itself ‐ such as the current bottom‐up activity of generating far more informative and useful Species Pages.

Objective 2: Continue the JRS‐initiated process of the PIs mentoring 5 parataxonomist‐educated Costa Ricans, housed at INBio to journal‐publish and web‐publish the entire taxonomic process from the paraxonomists to the museum.

Objective 3: Conduct an on‐site 7‐day full x‐ray workshop of ACG as conservation through biodiversity information management and use, for a select 10‐member group of African conserved wildland managers/directors, and discuss ACG in the context of their own biodiversity management experience.

Achievement was assessed by the web site’s functionality, and by the production of high-quality innovative publications and sharing‐by‐example.

Planned Outputs

Objective 1:

  • An ACG web site rich in biodiversity information upload and display processes (bilingual) for all users across society, and richly populated by all ACG staff and programs.
  • On‐call checkerboards, historical pictorial perspectives, news of the day, essays, databases, database analyses, crowdsourcing inputs, question‐answers, links to international relevants, work orders, program schedules, focal species, Species Pages, policy news, ACG threats, Program Content, etc.

Objective 2:

  • ACG field parataxonomists adept at producing very high quality and self‐edited/polished documented data and images for their samples, fashioning this data into web‐friendly modules as Species Pages and other formats, and putting and taking way from the web site in response to user queries and needs; creating their own report forms for users and for themselves.
  • At least 10 published taxonomic papers per year, all of which will integrate  classical taxonomic methods with modern DNA‐based accelerated taxonomic discovery and description (between 100 and 200 new species/year).
  • INBio‐housed parataxonomist curators self‐creating quality manuscripts for publication in journals and on web sites (at INBio as well as ACG and UPenn).

Objective 3:

  • Workshop to evaluate ACG status and success
  • Published and web‐based description/analysis of the workshop

Planned Outcomes

The project sought to support the following core areas of biodiversity information management for conservation in the tropics:

  • “Know thy park” ‐ Knowing what is in the conserved wildland well enough to be able to integrate it with multiple and diverse society‐based uses without seriously damaging it.
  • “Bioliteracy” ‐ Aiding, encouraging, supporting lay knowledge of, and understanding of, wild biodiversity sufficiently that society incorporates it. The entomological and botanical daily findings and activities of the Parataxonomist Program are steady fuel for the ACG Programa de Educacion Biologica, and the raw material underpinning much of the Canadian initiative to “DNA barcode the world’s biodiversity” (iBOL).
  • “Leading by example”: ACG is a living, functioning, 27‐year‐old example of operating by the philosophy expressed here. While much of ACG has been described in academic and popular press, the team has found visitation by personnel from other wildland management units in other countries to be by far the most effective way of spreading the word and concepts into their unique situations. To that end, they have proposed an intense ACG‐evaluation workshop, which they hope will have a major positive impact on East African biodiversity conservation.

Last Updated: February 28th, 2017

Project Results

By the conclusion of the project, the 34 parataxonomists were working nearly independently on populating and translating the biodiversity information to accessible, interactive web content for the ACG site. They have created 368 species pages for insects, plants, and mammals, that are also customized to their biological stations, enhancing the place-based relevance of the information. The reduced number of parataxonomists in the program (from 39 at the start) reflected the advancement of the 5 parataxonomist-trained Costa Ricans to “Museum Associate” status at INBio. The continued stability and success of the Parataxonomists Program enabled GDFCF to leverage funding for a substantial expansion of the ACG inventory from moths and butterflies to include beetles as well. This is an excellent example of the capacity-building work done by GDFCF.

The group held a successful showcase workshop in February 2016, to share the AGC Parataxonomist Program model of documenting and publicizing place-based biodiversity. Attendees came to Costa Rica from across Central and South America, including Panama (STRI), Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, and Cuba to learn how ACG partners with locals to build biodiversity informatics infrastructure and awareness. Though attendees face varied infrastructural and institutional contexts in their home countries, they could all leave the workshop with ideas for project components that would work for their particular circumstances.

Lessons Learned

  • The project leadership decided that the evaluation workshop (Objective 3) would be much more effective if conducted in Latin America, transparently demonstrating the efficacy of the project in a political, social, and cultural context relevant to attendees. The hope was to inspire connection, collaboration, and engagement among participants, facilitated by shared language and culture.
  • Even in well-established programs, the caprices of the weather can still upend planning. The El Niño in 2015 brought a great deal of rain that disrupted construction and apprenticeship training events.
  • “Going viral” on the internet can be both an opportunity and a challenge. The snake-caterpiller, Hemeroplanes triptolemus, recently garnered a great deal of attention online and in social media, and not a little bit of mis-information. GDFCF has worked to provide freely-available, accessible, and accurate natural history information for this charismatic species, in an effort to promote bioliteracy, yet this experience underscores the difficulties that can result from the high-throughput world of internet news.
  • In the political and cultural context of Latin America, scientific papers have relatively less impact on actual conservation and attitudes toward biodiversity than laws and decrees. As such, ACG found they had greater influence via streams of information other than published literature, e.g., providing concrete examples of working systems (Parataxonomist Program) that are transparent and welcoming to visitors from the poorest neighbors and their school children, to the country’s president and diputados; public addresses in fora, workshops and social events; ghost-writing policy speeches for prominent public figures; business contracts; newspapers; and web sites, blogs and other forms of web-based outreach to everyone.

Related Publications

  • Bertrand, C; DH Janzen, W Hallwachs; JM Burns, JF Gibson, S Shokralla, M Hajibabaei (2014) Mitochondrial and nuclear phylogenetic analysis with Sanger and next-generation sequencing shows that, in Área de Conservación Guanacaste, northwestern Costa Rica, the skipper butterfly named Urbanus belli (family Hesperiidae) comprises three morphologically cryptic species. BMC Evolutionary Biology. 14(153): 18pp. (link)
  • Phillips-Rodríguez, EP; JA Powell; W Hallwachs; DH Janzen (2014) A synopsis of the genus Ethmia Hübner in Costa Rica: biology, distribution, and description of 22 new species (Lepidoptera, Gelechioidea, Depressariidae, Ethmiinae, with emphasis on the 42 species known from Área de Conservación Guanacaste). ZooKeys. 461: 1 – 86. dii: 10.3897/zookeys.461.8377 (link)

Notes from JRS

This grant is a reinvestment in the very successful initial grant made in 2011 (read more about the initial grant here).  In that time, the para-taxonomist program has expanded in scale and technical prowess to a point of remarkable productivity. This second phase aims to solidify that work, deepen the skills and capacity in the ACG team and its collaborators, and seek potential partners in elsewhere in Latin America that might emulate the success in Guanacaste.

It has been a pleasure and honor to support the para-taxonomists of Guanacaste. An accounting of species pages, records, and publications does not capture the spirit and contribution of these Costa Rican residents and neighbors of Guanacaste. They prove that taxonomy, conservation science, and biodiversity informatics is not the sole province of university-trained researchers and conservation scientists.

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