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Biodiversity data network helps map plants used in Aboriginal medicine

Innovative use of data accessible through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) may help to identify areas of high cultural value, based on plants used in traditional medicine by Aboriginal people in Australia.

The Customary Medicinal Knowledgebase (CMKb), based at Macquarie University, is teaming up with the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), which hosts the GBIF national node, to integrate medicinal knowledge with other information on Australian biodiversity.

A recent study modelled suitable ecological niches for more than 400 plant species that are of medicinal importance, using data accessed through the GBIF portal and Australia’s Virtual Herbarium (AVH), one of the main resources contributing data to ALA.

The study, combining traditional knowledge with state-of-the-art ecological niche modelling technologies, was conducted by Dr Jitendra Gaikwad, Dr Peter Wilson and Prof Shoba Ranganathan (UNESCO Chair of Biodiversity Informatics) from Macquarie University. It was published in the journal Ecological Modelling.

The outcome was a map of potential “bio-cultural diversity hotspots”, areas suitable for the occurrence of multiple species known to be used in traditional medicine.

Jitendra Gaikwad said the facility of the GBIF data portal was very useful in obtaining information about the distribution of 414 plant species, used in the research.

“Many of the species in our analysis occur globally and data at that scale, obtained through the GBIF portal, projected onto the Australian scale, helped us identify areas suitable for multiple species,” said Gaikwad.

“Many plants brought into Australia by early settlers have become an integral part of Aboriginal traditional knowledge. Global data on these plants is essential, and we obtained this from GBIF,” he added.

“For the Aboriginal people, their connection with the land is a matter of survival, emotion and culture – it is not just a piece of land for them. So let’s say a mining industry identifies an area that is inhabited by an Aboriginal community.

“This methodology allows us to evaluate the cultural value of the land. We have used medicinal value, but we can use other socio-economic, traditional knowledge and biodiversity conservation aspects as well.


“The next logical step would be to select an area and validate the distribution of the species and the cultural value in the field.


“But before that, we need to have active participation of Aboriginal communities to validate the results,” Gaikwad concluded.


The agreement between Macquarie University and the Atlas of Living Australia will:

  • Set up a “mirror site” of the Customary Medicinal Knowledgebase at the ALA, to support more efficient, updated delivery of data services;
  • Integrate seamlessly the public domain data from CMKb such as species information, medicinal uses and phytochemical information with the ALA to enable large-scale analyses;
  • Develop a web interface for displaying CMKb data on ALA;
  • Develop a web interface for ecological modeling for medicinal plants, using freely available software and ALA web services.

The Director of ALA, Donald Hobern, said the latest study in Ecological Modelling was of great interest.

“It is an exciting and novel use of multiple heterogeneous datasets to explore the linkages between phylogeny (the study of the evolutionary relatedness of life forms), ecology, chemistry and human use of biodiversity,” Hobern said.

The director of GBIF, Dr Nicholas King, added: “It is very encouraging to see such creative and novel use being made of data accessible through the GBIF network. It shows the great value of publishing biodiversity data online using agreed international standards, and it emphasizes the importance of the global investment in data mobilization made by GBIF participants and partners.”

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