Friday, 2 December 2016

A new paradigm in parataxonomy?

Parataxonomy is an established approach to some aspects of biological recording. Its most high-profile proponent was Dan Janzen who employed local people in the rainforest of Costa Rica to collect and sort biological specimens after a considerable amount of training (1,000 hours). The intention was that Costa Rican parataxonomists would cover a wide range of organisms and the level of training was considerable. It was probably far more than any modern graduate would have attained! I suspect that not all subsequent use of parataxonomists has invested quite as well in their training, and therefore the results will have been different. Nevertheless, parataxonomy remains a useful, if constrained tool in developing an understanding of the diversity of plant and animal life.

For a long while, I have felt that at least some of what happens in UK biological recording is, in effect, parataxonomy. There are relatively few professional taxonomists, and only a small number of non-vocational specialists who would naturally fall into the class of ‘taxonomist’. There are a good many more (me included), who are sufficiently competent to arrive at reliable determinations within certain taxonomic areas. A few exceptional individuals may also spot the splits that need to be made, but many will simply follow the guidance of others. Are we taxonomists or parataxonomists?

There then follows a longer tail of people who take an active interest in some aspects of plant and animal life. Some may attain respectable competency in one or several disciplines, but choose not to take their interests any further. Here, the specialist may vet their records and query a small number, but in general their records go straight into the system.

Finally, there is a further cohort that is gaining skills or whose interests are peripheral to the discipline. In today's world that must include the growing army of people who, armed with a camera, record the wildlife of Britain and post their finds on iSpot,  iRecord and a wealth of Facebook pages where a name may be provided by a specialist. Bearing in mind the general agreement in the literature that parataxonomy is a good thing (within agreed parameters), it seems to me that we must embrace this new paradigm.

It is very clear from the UK Hoverflies Facebook page that many latent parataxonomists are emerging as they acquire experience and skills. Thus, I would liken the Facebook pages to the training that was given to Costa-Rican paratoxonomists by Dan Janzen. Being open-source learning, everybody progresses at their own pace, but in the course of a couple of years the most active participants will have acquired considerable skills. Quite a few of the the early recruits are starting to spread their wings and are now helping with IDs. That is a very positive move forward. Bearing in mind the investment in training made in Costa Rica, one must wonder how long it will be before there is a self-sustaining training element on the various Facebook pages.

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