CORDIS - EU research results

Plant evolutionary and ethnobotanical diversity changes along an altitudinal gradient

Final Report Summary - BIODIVERSITYALTITUDE (Plant evolutionary and ethnobotanical diversity changes along an altitudinal gradient)

This postdoctoral fellowship consisted of a 24-month stay at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Denmark (host institution).

Human lives have heavily depended on biodiversity for millennia and bioresources are still paramount for human livelihood. For example, 80% of the population in the developing world currently depends on traditional medicine for healthcare. Understanding how humans rely on nature for their livelihoods is an important goal of biodiversity research, and ethnobotany, the study of the interaction between humans and plants, has been coined the science of survival. The main objectives of the current project, BIODIVERSITYALTITUDE, were to explore how patterns of biodiversity distribution correlate with ecology, as well as to investigate the underpinnings of useful plant diversity used by local human communities. We used large biodiversity datasets and several modern comparative methods to address these questions.

The main research project focussed on plant biodiversity in the Nepalese Himalaya. The study system extends from sea level to more than 8000m, with an area of 147,200km2. The topographic character of the country, along with the hyperdiverse flora (~7,000 species) and the prevalence of traditional herbal medicine in the country, makes this an ideal area to study plant and ethnobotanical diversity along an altitudinal gradient. We collated databases of the altitudinal ranges of plants in the flora of Nepal, their uses in the country, and we generated a genus-level phylogeny of the flora. Our analyses show that plant biodiversity initially increases with altitude, until it reaches a peak at around 1300-1800m, after which point it decreases with altitude. The observed pattern follows a globally observed unimodal pattern of distribution, with low biodiversity richness in low and high altitude and a peak in diversity at mid-elevation. However, when we look at the evolutionary history encompassed in each zone, using the phylogeny of the flora, diversity peaks much higher, at around 1500m and does not drop until over 2500m. Our results indicate that conservation strategies should consider evolutionary history, as lower species diversity in higher altitudes does not necessarily imply a less diverse community. Also, in terms of available medicinal plant diversity, our results indicate that, although local human communities have fewer species to choose from in higher altitudes, many plant groups are locally available to use in traditional medicine up to 2500m. This knowledge can assist devise informed conservation strategies in different ecosystems in order to preserve biodiversity, which is crucial for human livelihoods.

An additional, complementary project was carried out, which investigated patterns in palm utilisation in South America. The well-being of the global human population rests on provisioning services delivered by 12% of Earth's ~400,000 plant species. Plant utilisation by humans is influenced by species traits, but it is not well understood which traits underpin different human needs. In this project, we focused on palms (Arecaceae), one of the economically most important plant groups globally, and showed that provisioning services related to basic needs, such as food and medicine, show a strong link to fundamental functional and geographic traits. We integrated data from 2,201 interviews on plant utilisation from three biomes in South America -spanning 68 communities, 43 ethnic groups and 2,221 plant uses - with a dataset of four traits (leaf length, stem volume, fruit volume, geographic range size) and a species-level phylogeny. For all 208 palm species occurring in our study area, we tested for relations between species' values perceived by humans and their traits. We found that people preferentially use large, widespread species compared to small, narrow-ranged species, and that different traits are linked to different uses. Further, plant size and geographic range size are stronger predictors of ecosystem service realisation for services related to basic human needs than less-basic needs (e.g. ritual). These findings suggest that reliance on yield and availability may have prevented our complete realisation of wild plant services, since ecologically rare yet functionally important (e.g. chemically) clades may have been overlooked. Beyond expanding our understanding of how local people use biodiversity in mega-diverse forests, our trait- and phylogeny-based approach helps to understand the processes that underpin ecosystem service realisation, a necessary step to meet societal needs in a changing world.

Apart from the scientific achievements described above, BIODIVERSITYALTITUDE has delivered the following list of deliverables:

Professional development – Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis completed courses on Project Management, Higher Education Teaching, and Bioinformatics. He taught on two courses and supervised PhD and MSc students. He transferred knowledge to the host institution through mentoring other members of the Rønsted group and formal supervision. The Fellow gave talks at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Aarhus, Denmark. He also received internal and external professional coaching. He was promoted to Assistant Professor in September 2015.

Dissemination – Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis produced six publications in high impact journals, and another three are anticipated by spring 2017. He presented his European research at five international conferences. The fellow presented his research at the annual Botanic Gardens Day, the annual Night of the Museum, the annual Science and Wine Gala event and pop-up exhibitions at the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

Societal benefits – The research carried out during this fellowship revealed important findings in biodiversity and ecosystem service research, which can be used in conservation schemes and efforts to maintain ecosystem resilience to meet societal needs in a changing world. Further, the fellowship enabled the training of two MSc students and the development of teaching material on an MSc course at the University of Copenhagen. The outreach activities informed the Danish public on the importance of biodiversity, its utilisation and conservation. Finally, the research activities during this fellowship strengthened the collaboration between the host and collaborators in Denmark, Spain, and the UK.

Website providing more details about the project and the fellow: