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Bioinventory: Building the Library of Life

In the global library of life, most of the books are today unread. There are far more unknown species than known species, and even fewer about which we know something. With human population growth and its insatiable diet, climate change, and habitat loss, we are approaching the end of the millennia-long race to know the natural world before we irretrievably lose what it was to us and what it still can be to us. But to read nature’s books, to even know they are there, we have to have to see them and put names on them – and there are way too few of us doing that, especially in biodiversity-rich tropical countries.

Many of the best taxonomists are retiring or dying, and they are not being replaced. The academic model of tenured specialists dependent on graduate students and conducting years of field and museum research is slow, expensive per species and inefficient, requires long absences from home, disfavors local knowledge, and does not build long-term biodiversity management capacity among those living in biodiverse regions, the social owners of that living biodiversity. A new approach is needed if there is to be any hope for bioliteracy among all 7.8 billion of us – to know, understand and gain from the life forms that share the planet with us, and with whom we have – generally unconsciously – partnered for millions of years.

The parataxonomists – an ACG nickname borrowed in 1989 from paramedics and paralegals – are the germination and base seedlings of a global solution. And then over the last decade, the founding members of GDFCF, along with partners in the scientific community, joined the parataxonomists’ field inventory of ACG with Professor Paul Hebert’s initiative at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario to create and grow iBOL, the International Barcode of Life, centered at the University of Guelph and the Smithsonian Institution. This pioneers a new path to global bioliteracy using the technique of DNA barcoding in combination with the resident parataxonomists conducting the inventory of 500,000+ species of natural books in Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG).

The result of DNA barcoding is a cost-effective, efficient, and highly accurate means of species identification and discovery of unknown and unexpected species. It has led to a dramatic expansion in knowledge about the numbers and kinds of species, as well as their behaviors. In particular, this tool is helping to solve one of the most vexing issues in taxonomy, the "cryptic species" problem. This problem exists where traditional, morphology-based taxonomy, usually initiated in the museum, sees one species (from small look-alike insects to great big whales) when in fact there may be two, four, ten, or even more separate species hiding under one name, as exposed when DNA barcoded.

To give an example of why this is significant, one species of large ACG moth – Amphionyx lucifer – is actually two species; one spends all of its life in the Caribbean rain forest while the other migrates seasonally back and forth between ACG dry forest in the rainy season and Caribbean rain forest in the inhospitable dry season. And on close examination through their DNA barcodes, it now appears likely that both are undescribed, because the name belongs to a yet third look-alike from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Understanding this kind of ecological dynamic gives serious new insights on food sources, reproductive habits, species’ interactions, species’ evolution, and conservation needs. And does it for tens of thousands of wild species.