News Release

National parks preserve more than species

Study of Costa Rican rainforest shows national parks are more resilient than expected

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Rice University

Lydia Beaudrot, Rice University

image: Lydia Beaudrot is an assistant professor of biosciences at Rice University. view more 

Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

HOUSTON - (Sept. 9, 2020) - National parks are safe havens for endangered and threatened species, but an analysis by Rice University data scientists finds parks and protected areas can preserve more than species.

In a study published online this week in the journal Biotropica, Rice ecologists and data scientists Daniel Gorczynski and Lydia Beaudrot used thousands of camera trap photos to assess the large mammal diversity in the protected rainforest of Costa Rica's Braulio Carrillo National Park.

In wildlife conservation, diversity often refers to the variety of species in an ecosystem. But ecologists also study functional diversity, the abundance and variation of traits like body size, diet and reproductive rate. Trait diversity can be measured independent of species diversity and provide additional insight about the overall health of an ecosystem.

In the study, Gorczynski and Beaudrot analyzed more than 4,200 photos of mammals taken in the park between 2007 and 2014 and found the diversity of mammal traits within the park did not decline, despite deforestation that fragmented the forests on more than half of the surrounding private lands.

"It is a bit of a surprise," said Gorczynski, a Ph.D. student in Rice's Department of Biosciences. "Previous studies in other places have shown that trait diversity is more sensitive to human disturbance than species diversity. Trait diversity can decline more quickly than species diversity, both in cases where species go extinct and where they don't."

There were no mammal extinctions in Braulio Carrillo during the eight years of the study, and Beaudrot, an assistant professor of biosciences at Rice, said the trait analysis revealed a level of functional redundancy that could allow the park's ecosystem to continue functioning even if some of its mammals go extinct in the future.

"It's well-established that national parks preserve species, and our results show national parks can be more resilient than expected, at least over the time period we examined," she said.

Beaudrot said the results are encouraging, but she said it would be a mistake to assume that all national parks are as resilient as Braulio Carrillo.

"This shows what's possible, but the situation could be very different at other parks or over longer time periods," she said. "We need comparable studies for other parks, other protected areas and nonprotected areas.

"This is an area where data science can make a difference," she said. "Some of the data needed to make those comparisons are already available."


The study used photos from the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network, which has operated a camera-trap network covering more than one-third of Braulio Carrillo since 2007. Analyzed species included jaguar, ocelot and other cats, tapir, tayra, coati, racoon, javelina, deer, opossum and a number of rodents.

TEAM has monitored long-term trends in tropical biodiversity with data from 17 sites in Africa, Asia, Central America and South America. TEAM is currently a member of the wildlife monitoring partnership Wildlife Insights and was established by Conservation International, the Smithsonian Institution and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The research was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, HP, the Northrop Grumman Foundation and other donors.

Links and resources:

The DOI of the Biotropica paper is: 10.1111/btp.12844

A copy of the paper is available at:

High-resolution IMAGES are available for download at:
CAPTION: A jaguar photographed in Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica, by a Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network camera trap. (Photo courtesy of the TEAM Network)
CAPTION: A jaguar photographed in Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica, by a Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network camera trap. (Photo courtesy of the TEAM Network)
CAPTION: An agouti photographed in Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica, by a Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network camera trap. (Photo courtesy of the TEAM Network)
CAPTION: Daniel Gorczynski (Photo courtesy of Rice University)
CAPTION: Lydia Beaudrot (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation's top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice's undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for quality of life and No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger's Personal Finance.

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