Expeditions begin with ideas and those ideas always have a history. In our case, there was a remarkable project that began in 1998. In that year, the main institution studying the biodiversity of Costa Rica, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio for short), with the support of the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank, initiated a program to better understand the fauna of Costa Rica. They recognized that it was very difficult to make decisions regarding development if most of the fauna was unknown or couldn’t be interpreted. Knowing what species are present in ecosystems is a vital step in making better management decisions. As a result, they asked a number of scientists in the international community to work on different groups of insects, including the Diptera (true flies).
There were 9 Dipterists that first gathered together to determine how best to interpret the huge diversity of flies in this tropical country. There was lively debate that resulted in a decision to produce a book that would allow flies to be identified throughout Central America, at least to the genus level. This would be the first time that flies could be identified even to this level for any tropical region and we all recognized the immensity of the task. Because there are 105 families of flies in Central America (nearly all are also in Costa Rica), the 6 scientists who volunteered to become editors of the work, asked 71 of their colleagues to help write chapters; and some of these collaborators asked some of their colleagues to also help. Because most families of flies each have many hundreds or even thousands of species, it is possible for most taxonomists to be specialists in only one large or a few smaller families. The flies are so vast that many experts are needed to tackle the different families. In total, there were 77 scientists who wrote or contributed to the 113 chapters that were needed. After years of hard work, we have now produced a two volume work called the Manual of Central American Diptera, with Volume 1 being 714 pages and Volume 2 being about the same size. For the first time, we have a comprehensive guide to the fly fauna of this tropical area.
Brian Brown and Art Borkent have been involved in the thick of this project throughout the years and both were editors of the volumes (Brian was the head editor and four of our colleagues were assistant editors). In the past couple of years, during various meetings and through correspondence, Art and Brian saw that our huge cooperative effort was to be soon completed and we began asking the question “What should we do next, to build on what we have already accomplished?” We were deeply aware of two important aspects. First, we saw that we still didn’t know most families of Diptera in Costa Rica to the species level. This isn’t just a question for Costa Rica. Rather, we recognized that we don’t how many species of flies live in any tropical area anywhere in the world (other than a few isolated islands). This is an important question – how many species live in a tropical area? For the first time as scientists working on flies, we now had a manual that would allow us to identify our specimens to the genus level and, with further study, we could begin to sort our specimens to the species level. Second, we discovered that our colleagues who contributed so much to putting together the Manual of Central American Diptera were a remarkably cooperative and enthusiastic group of scientists. We saw that this large community of colleagues might provide a amazing collaborative basis to address further important questions about fly diversity in Central America.
As we thought about the problem of knowing tropical species of flies, it quickly became obvious that we couldn’t study all the species in Costa Rica. Each of us realized that there are likely thousands of unnamed species and many which could not be accurately identified even if they did have names (because the published guides are poor). A huge amount of taxonomic study would be required to sort all those species. Furthermore, sampling a large area can generate unbelievable amounts of material which would quickly swamp any researcher. Indeed, there have actually been a number of previous attempts by other scientists to interpret the biodiversity of a large area that have failed because there was just too many specimens and too few scientists and technicians available for the massive number of specimens to study. For any study of biodiversity to be a success, so that results are actually published, it is vital that the research plan is within reach – that the number of specimens are not so vast, or ill prepared, that collaborators throw up their hands in despair and give up.
After looking at a number of different options Brian and Art zeroed in on a project which seemed “doable”. Earlier work by ourselves and others indicated that within Central American countries, the midelevation cloudforest was a general habitat that was rich in species. Then, by looking at a variety of samples and drawing on our previous collecting experience, we saw that we needed to limit the scope of our study area to a 100 X 200 meter area and chose a spot at Zurquí de Moravia (hereafter just simply Zurquí) as our primary target area. Even so, we calculated that our proposed 3 year study would generate hundreds of thousands of specimens and likely uncover thousands of species of flies!