Webinar: DNA barcodes, BioAlfa, and the study of insect diversity in Costa Rica
Horizontes Forest Experimental Station, ACG
Photo by Diego Mejias
June 30, 2020

Speakers: Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez visiting the iBOL booth at the Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity (July, 2019). With Torbjørn Ekrem (Norwegian Barcode of Life coordinator) and Adriana Radulovici (Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, Canada).

Promotional advert for the June 24, 2020 webinar presented by Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs.

Almost 200 people from Latin America were connected through Zoom on June 24, 2020. The reason for spending a summer evening in front of their computer screens was to see Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs (University of Pennsylvania, members of iBOL board of directors) discussing their work in Costa Rica and their journey to BioAlfa.

Dan gave an overview of his six decades in this tropical country, from his first visit in 1963, to his later ecological work in various national parks. This led to Dan and Winnie eventually focusing their interests on Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG), a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering more than 150,000 hectares of land and sea in the Northwest of Costa Rica.

Founding Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund, a not-for-profit organization, helped establish formal relations with the Costa Rican government to promote biodiversity conservation in ACG. From the beginning of their work in ACG, Dan and Winnie considered the local communities to be paramount for successful conservation efforts. In 1989, local people interested in biodiversity – but without a formal education in this area – assembled for a first course for parataxonomists held in ACG. Since then, their numbers grew and some 40 parataxonomists are currently employed in ACG to conduct daily activities in biodiversity research, mainly related to rearing insects and documenting their food preference for different plants.

Their hard work provided the basis needed to test DNA barcoding as a method for species identification and discovery since the early days (‘Ten species in one is all too known to the barcoding community). The ACG parataxonomists also sample insect tissue to fill up 96-well plates to send to the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (University of Guelph, Canada) together with the associated metadata (images, collection data, preliminary taxonomic information etc.). Between individual samples and bulk samples, hundreds of thousands of samples have been sent to be processed in Canada and their information stored in the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD), ACG being one of the main single contributors of barcode data to BOLD. The data so far generated show that only 0.2% of BINs (Barcode Index Numbers used as proxies for species) were shared between the dry, cloud and rainforest sites sampled with Malaise traps in ACG. Additionally, based on the work of the parataxonomists and the DNA barcoding approach new species have been discovered and described, sometimes by a team of authors including parataxonomists.

With ecotourism being Costa Rica’s largest revenue source, this country was in the best position to choose to inventory and protect its biodiversity for the benefit of its people. BioAlfa, estimated to cost $100 million over 10 years, was proposed as a project for national bioliteracy, to inventory the approximately one million species estimated to occur on the five million hectares of Costa Rica. Strong political support at the highest levels of the government made this project a reality and worthy of national interest. Costa Rica is on track to become the first tropical bioliterate country, where its people will have free access to information about what lives where. It is part of BIOSCAN, an international project aiming to inventory Earth’s multi-cellular life, but it will provide an in-depth view of a country’s natural assets.

BioAlfa can also serve as an example for other megadiverse countries, and is gaining interest from other Latin American countries, such as Colombia. After an initial visit of Dan and Winnie to Bogotá (October 2019) where they had various discussions at the Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt (IAVH), a Colombian delegation visited ACG in February 2020 to learn how BioAlfa originated and how it is implemented. COVID-19 and its traveling restrictions did not manage to stop this South-South collaboration but just to move it into the virtual space.

Mailyn Gonzalez (Conservation Genetics lead, IAVH and the Colombian representative in iBOL’s Science Committee), Carlos Prieto (Professor at Universidad del Atlantico (UA), Barranquilla, Colombia), Felipe Villegas (Communication team, IAVH) and Nathalie Baena  (Postdoctoral Fellow, IAVH) joined forces with Dan and Winnie and their Costa Rican team to organize a webinar in Spanish. It all started with an invitation from Carlos Prieto to Dan and Winnie to provide an online class to the biology students of UA. It soon became obvious to the organizing team that a larger Spanish speaking audience would be interested to learn about how Costa Rica is using sustainably its natural resources but also what major challenges are encountered in megadiverse countries when studying biodiversity and how to inspire future work in the region.

The presentation given by Dan and Winnie stirred a lot of interest from participants, most of whom were very interested to know how can the BioAlfa model be adopted by Colombia. Technical questions were also raised (e.g., reference libraries, documentation) and discussed. Interest in volunteering in ACG has been also addressed (only volunteers fluent in Spanish, able to cover all their costs and committed to work very hard to match the parataxonomists are encouraged to apply). Overall, it was a great opportunity for participants to learn about a project with so many components but with the ultimate goal of improving people’s knowledge on nature and its services so that it can be better protected for future generations.

Media Contacts:

International Barcode of Life Consortium

Hannah James
Manager – Media and Strategic Communications

The International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Consortium is a research alliance with a mission to develop and apply a globally accessible, DNA-based system for the discovery and identification of all multicellular life. Our vision is to illuminate biodiversity for the benefit of our living planet.

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