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Ecological niche modeling of customary medicinal plant species used by Australian Aborigines to identify species-rich and culturally valuable areas for conservation

Jitendra Gaikwad, Peter D. Wilson, Shoba Ranganathan
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Journal Article
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Customary medicinal plant species used by Australian Aborigines are disappearing rapidly with its associated knowledge, due to the loss of habitats. Conservation and protection of these species is important as they represent sources of novel therapeutic phytochemical compounds and are culturally valuable. Information on the spatial distribution and use of customary medicinal plants is often inadequate and fragmented, posing limitations on the identification and conservation of species-rich areas and culturally valuable habitats. In this study, the habitat suitability modeling program, MaxEnt, was used to predict the potential ecological niches of 431 customary medicinal plant species, based on bioclimatic variables. Specimen locality records were obtained from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) data portal and from Australia's Virtual Herbarium (AVH). Ecological niche models of 414 predicted species, which had 30 or more occurrence points, were used to produce maps indicating areas that were ecologically suitable for multiple species (concordance of high predicted ecological suitability) and having cultural values. For the concordance map, individual species niche models were thresholded and summed. To derive a map of culturally valuable areas, customary medicinal uses from Customary Medicinal Knowledgebase (CMKb) (www.biolinfo.org/cmkb) were used to weight individual species models, resulting in a value within each grid cell reflecting its cultural worth. Even though the available information is scarce and fragmented, our approach provides an opportunity to infer areas predicted to be suitable for multiple species (i.e. concordance hotspots) and to estimate the cultural value of a particular geographical area. Our results also indicate that to conserve bio-cultural diversity, comprehensive information and active participation of Aboriginal communities is indispensable.

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