Nav: Home

The quiet loss of knowledge threatens indigenous communities

May 02, 2019

Plants play an important role for most indigenous communities in South America, and not merely as a source of food. They also provide the raw material for building materials, tools, medicine, and much more. The extinction of a plant species therefore also endangers the very foundation of these people's way of life.

But there is another threat that has more or less gone unnoticed: The disappearance of the knowledge of what the different plant species are used for. The problem is that this is not written down. Passed down as a cultural inheritance, it exists only in the minds of the people - and could therefore vanish almost unnoticed. "Very little is known about how vulnerable this knowledge is in the context of current global change," says Jordi Bascompte, professor of ecology at the University of Zurich. "There is therefore an urgent need to find out how biological and cultural factors interact with each other in determining the services provided by biodiversity.."

Analysis of the use of palm trees

Consequently, Jordi Bascompte and his postdoc Miguel A. Fortuna teamed up with Rodrigo Cámara-Leret from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK to study these interactions on a large scale for the first time. For their study, they analyzed knowledge held by 57 indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, the Andes and the Chocó region to collate their knowledge of palm trees. The researchers then depicted the different palm species and their uses in graphical form in a network, from which they could identify the local and regional links between the knowledge of indigenous communities.

Each community knew around 18 palm species and 36 different possible uses on average. For example, the fruit is eaten, dried leaves are woven into hammocks and the trunks can be split and laid as flooring in huts. The study revealed that the knowledge of the different communities only overlapped partially, even with respect to the same species of palm.

Minimal loss of knowledge still has consequences

Using simulations, the researchers analyzed what would happen if knowledge of a particular species or use were lost. They found that the network is extremely fragile, with the loss of just a few components having the potential to make an enormous impact on the entire system: "In this context, cultural diversity is just as important as biological diversity," says Jordi Bascompte. "In particular, the simultaneous loss of plant species and cultural inheritance leads to a much faster disintegration of the indigenous knowledge network."

Importance of cultural and biological factors

Bascompte and his colleagues concluded that, to date, too little attention has been paid to cultural factors. "The focus is typically directed toward the extinction of plant species. However, the irreplaceable knowledge that is gradually disappearing from indigenous communities is equally important for the service that an ecosystem provides."

The study also highlights the value of transdisciplinary collaboration between ecology and social science: "The relationship established between biological and cultural diversity can help strengthen the resilience of indigenous communities in the face of global change."

University of Zurich

Related Plant Species Articles:

Study: One-third of plant and animal species could be gone in 50 years
University of Arizona researchers studied recent extinctions from climate change to estimate the loss of plant and animal species by 2070.
Scientists challenge notion of binary sexuality with naming of new plant species
A collaborative team of scientists from the US and Australia has named a new plant species from the remote Outback.
Plant lineage points to different evolutionary playbook for temperate species
An ancient, cosmopolitan lineage of plants is shaking up scientists' understanding of how quickly species evolve in temperate ecosystems and why.
Native plant species may be at greater risk from climate change than non-natives
A study led by researchers at Indiana University's Environmental Resilience Institute has revealed that warming temperatures affect native and non-native flowering plants differently, which could change the look of local landscapes over time.
'Specialized' microbes within plant species promote diversity
A Yale-led research team conducted an experiment that suggests microbes can specialize within plant species, which can promote plant species diversity and increased seed dispersal.
New machine learning method predicts additions to global list of threatened plant species
A new method uses machine learning and open-access data to predict whether species are eligible for at-risk status on the IUCN Red List.
Bioactive novel compounds from endangered tropical plant species
A Japan-based research team led by Kanazawa University has isolated 17 secondary metabolites, including three novel compounds from the valuable endangered tropical plant species Alangium longiflorum.
Global study finds taller plant species taking over as mountains and the Arctic warm
A study by more than 100 global researchers, including Simon Fraser University biologist David Hik, is linking the effects of climate change to new and taller plant species in the Arctic and alpine tundra.
New plant species discovered in museum is probably extinct
A single non-photosynthetic plant specimen preserved in a Japanese natural history museum has been identified as a new species.
Plant virus alters competition between aphid species
In the world of plant-feeding insects, who shows up first to the party determines the overall success of the gathering; yet viruses can disrupt these intricate relationships, according to researchers at Penn State.
More Plant Species News and Plant Species Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#566 Is Your Gut Leaking?
This week we're busting the human gut wide open with Dr. Alessio Fasano from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. Join host Anika Hazra for our discussion separating fact from fiction on the controversial topic of leaky gut syndrome. We cover everything from what causes a leaky gut to interpreting the results of a gut microbiome test! Related links: Center for Celiac Research and Treatment website and their YouTube channel
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Flag and the Fury
How do you actually make change in the world? For 126 years, Mississippi has had the Confederate battle flag on their state flag, and they were the last state in the nation where that emblem remained "officially" flying.  A few days ago, that flag came down. A few days before that, it coming down would have seemed impossible. We dive into the story behind this de-flagging: a journey involving a clash of histories, designs, families, and even cheerleading. This show is a collaboration with OSM Audio. Kiese Laymon's memoir Heavy is here. And the Hospitality Flag webpage is here.