Genetic analysis of tree confirms what Indigenous people of Borneo knew

A study led by Northwestern University plant biologists has determined that a species of fruit-bearing tree found in Borneo and the Philippines, long considered by Western botanists to be a single species, is actually two genetically distinct species.

The findings confirm what the Iban people, who are indigenous to Borneo, already knew from experience: The tree has two different varieties, which they call lumok and pingan, distinguished by their fruit size and shape.

The researchers conducted a genetic analysis of Artocarpus odoratissimus, a single species in current Linnaean taxonomy, first described to western science by a Spanish botanist close to 200 years ago. Throughout the scientific process, the team engaged with Indigenous people to combine their knowledge with DNA data.

The study, which includes Malaysian scientists and Iban field botanists as authors, was published this week in the journal Current Biology.

Tweet this quoteThis work highlights the necessity for local community engagement to understand and preserve biodiversity and indigenous knowledge.”
Nyree Zerega
Plant biologist

The research team was led by Elliot M. Gardner, a Ph.D. student in the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation (offered jointly by Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden) when the study was conducted. Nyree Zerega, director of the program, is the study’s senior author. Gardner is now a botanist at Florida International University.

“This work highlights the necessity for local community engagement to understand and preserve biodiversity and indigenous knowledge,” Zerega said.

To determine the correct taxonomy of the tree, which is in the same genus as the trees that produce breadfruit and jackfruit, the scientists took DNA samples from trees in Malaysian Borneo and from historical herbarium specimens. They employed phylogenetic analyses and DNA microsatellites to show that while lumok and pingan are closely related, they are genetically distinct species. The scientists recommend that the trees be renamed to reflect this and suggest that it’s time to consider incorporating more Indigenous names into taxonomic research.

“While the scientific endeavor has long benefitted from Indigenous knowledge, it has usually not engaged with it on equal footing,” the authors write. “While Linnaean taxonomy offers a broad framework for global comparisons, it may lack the detailed local insights possessed by Indigenous peoples.”

“Time is of the essence, because just as biodiversity is under threat of climate change, Indigenous knowledge — itself protected under Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity — is threatened by societal change,” Gardner and colleagues say.

The title of the paper is “Engagement with indigenous knowledge improves our understanding of biodiversity and promotes the conservation of both.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Garden Club of America, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists and the Botanical Society of America, among others.

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