Ethnobiology in the Eastern Himalayas


SEB Student Committee members Alexander R. O’Neill and Santosh K. Rana recently published a review of ethnobiological knowledge in the Eastern Himalayas. Focusing on the northeast Indian state of Sikkim, a former Buddhist kingdom, they found that over 1,100 species of animals, plants, and fungi have written ethnobiological records in the region. The majority of these species were plants (995 species; 625 genera; 160 families) that were used as medicine for gastro-intestinal afflictions, dermatological conditions, and respiratory-tract infections. But many more were integrated into aspects of folklore and regional spirituality. Using site occurrence records, Alex and Santosh then interpolated species distributions based on altitudinal range. They found that the greatest number of species facing human extraction pressures have ranges that fall well outside of protected areas in Sikkim. Moreover, the majority of medicinals were pending IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assessments. Alex and Santosh suggest data from ethnobiological publications can serve a conservation purpose by highlighting where and how intensively species are extracted from the environment. They also were the first ecologists to quantify aspects of biocultural diversity in the Eastern Himalayas, and hope that their methodology can help other scientists bridge disciplines for conservation purposes.

Alexander R. O’Neill

Student Representative of the Society for Economic Botany & Masters Candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University


Read more:

Integrating ethnobiological knowledge into biodiversity conservation in the Eastern Himalayas



Summer 2018 Internship at Morton Arboretum

The Morton Arboretum is recruiting applicants for 2018 summer undergraduate fellowships, which runs for 10 weeks and covers housing and a generous stipend. Each fellow works closely under one scientist. Morton Arboretum scientists cover a broad range of topics: basic tree biology, forest ecology, arboriculture, biomechanics, root biology, soil science, population biology, genetics, phylogenetics, systematics, conservation biology, and restoration ecology. The program endeavors to promote critical thinking, self-confidence, and perseverance, while helping prepare students for graduate studies and professional careers in science-related fields.
Information about undergraduate fellowships and the application process can be found here

Information on the Morton Arboretum can be found  here and information on research at the Arboretum can be found here . Students are encouraged to contact lead scientists directly to discuss potential areas of study. Please contact with any general questions.

Developing the Ethnobotany Society at Brown

Written by Aja Grande, SEB Undergraduate Ambassador

Every expedition stems from a question, a wonder about the lush and uncharted. Just two months into winter after the election of Trump, the task to unite the biological with the social sciences seemed necessary, yet somewhat of an enigma. Who would dare to start an anomalous group at such a politically tender time? My reason was human curiosity. Inquiry about life outside of my sphere lead me to found the Ethnobotany Society at Brown. When the society became institutionally recognized with over 70 members, I began a journey with other students to connect inside classroom content with the community beyond university walls, in both the physical and intellectual sense. Our outings entailed visiting Lincoln Woods for a mycology excursion, touring the greenhouse of a local farmer from Laos, hosting a seminar on chemical plant extraction, and dispersing botanical knowledge via aphrodisiac cards on Valentines Day, in addition to building an online resource for all things Ethnobotany-related. It was not the abundance of ethnobotanical information in a single place, but the lack of its cohesive presence in my community which set the society in motion.

The greatest learning experiences stem from surrendering what is already known. Confrontation with these inward foundations of truth is coupled with reward. Similar to most innovative groups, building this society‚Äôs foundation called for an abandonment of the lifestyle I toiled so hard to maintain ‚Äď a career as an intercollegiate swimmer. Transitioning from chlorinated pool waters to earthly terrain has not been easy task. Although all goals of competing on a Division I level were buried in the forfeit of athletic merit, the lessons I gained through that experience remain engrained in my character.

Fellow peers, adventure past the safety of the known, for your previous devotion will show through on your next expedition in ways which you will least expect. The key is to pick a direction and commit. Though grueling, the feat of dedicating full attention to the construction of something original will earn distinction among peers.

At the conclusion of the 2017 summer, the Ethnobotany Society tucked away an eight week long summer reading session on the history and development of Ethnobotany in the 21st century, and has collected over a dozen exciting submissions for a Fall journal issue. As I begin to assume the two-year position as student representative under the Society for Economic Botany, I depart advice to other students in the form of three simple actions: leave your comfortable spot, explore the unknown, and share what you learn with others. It is through this process that one is able to embrace and contribute to an extraordinary world filled with people and plants.

Plant Hunting in the Amazon

Written by Joe Modzelewski, SEB Undergraduate Ambassador

I had the privilege this past June to work with Fauna Forever in Peru, primarily concentrating in the field of ethnobotany and medicinal plants. Fauna Forever was founded , and is currently headed, by Dr. Chris Kirby. For the past twenty years, Fauna Forever, based out of the fast-growing town of Puerto Maldonado, has worked within the Madre de Dios region of Peru striving to promote rainforest conservation through research of animals and plants all the while fostering outreach projects with the diverse communities who call the rainforest their home.

Under the supervision and counsel of Juan-Carlos Huayllapuma Cruz, I visited and worked in and among various settings in the Madre de Dios region. The first community we visited was at Las Piedras, known as Boca Pariamanu. The community at Boca Pariamanu is only accessible by boat along the Rio Madre de Dios and is a mixed heritage population of both indigenous Amahuacan and colonial Spanish.

The Boca Pariamanu community, in conjunction with Fauna Forever, has some initiatives currently in the works to preserve their native Amahuacan language, to engage in ecotourism, and to promote conservation practices as they relate to their primary source of income which is agriculture and the harvesting of rice, plantains, and yuca.

I worked with the community healer Alberto to learn about the various medicinal plants which he and the community use in their daily lives to mend and heal all sorts of ailments, to aid in the creation and building of a community medicinal garden, and to gather ethnographic data which will be eventually compiled to formulate a proper plan of action that to be implemented for the introduction of ecotourism in the community. For example, one of the concerns for the community is whether or not to allow ayahuasca tourism once they open themselves to visitors. Although potentially very lucrative, ayahuasca tourism presents its own pitfalls and dangers in regard to harvesting sustainability and notions of cultural and ritual continuity.

The second community setting we visited was the Malatesta family farm located just outside of Puerto Maldonado. The Malatesta family farm is an agroforestry project which implements organic and sustainable growing practices. Just like the Boca Pariamanu community, the Malatesta family is interested in opening up their farm to ecotourism and so, Juan-Carlos and I investigated the farm to determine how it could become more conducive to potential visitors. As well, we investigated and identified various medicinal plant species around their property, geocaching points of interests. One mini-project we started was to create signs to label the multitude of medicinal plants which visitors would pass by as they walked the trail around the farm land.

The third setting we visited was the Colpas Tambopata Lodge, which is currently serving as the Fauna Forever research station, located in the Tambopata National Reserve. This is where the majority of the other Fauna Forever interns were stationed, as they worked within the fields of mammal studies, ornithology, and herpetology. Based out of the research centre, Juan-Carlos and I made various vegetation plots to aid in the determination of the age forest based off of measurements of tree circumferences. We also noted and explored the surrounding forest in regard to the various medicinal plants which could be found.

Across these diverse settings, Fauna Forever allowed me some incredible opportunities to explore the field of ethnobotany and gain invaluable hands-on experience with a whole variety of individuals who are passionate about their rainforest and the living communities who share it.

SEB Conference 2017

One of the most exciting things about SEB 2017 (Bragança, Portugal) was the opportunity to network with other ethnobotanists. Whether new to the field or veterans, from Europe or distant islands, everyone at the meeting had valuable experiences and perspectives to share. Many students expressed interest in developing a toolkit of ethical guidelines and ideas for returning knowledge to the communities we work with. Although journal articles publish the results of previous ethnobotanical work, they rarely share information about the process of community engagement. The students of SEB would like to collect stories of how previous ethnobotanists have built ethical research relationships as models and inspiration for our own research. If you have stories of how you or other researchers have worked with communities (whether the outcomes were positive or not) and how they gave back to these communities, please share them with myself or the other members of the SEB Student Committee. Together, we can provide a foundation for the ethics of the next generation of ethnobotanists.


Graduate Student Representatives Bestabé Castro and Matthew Bond.

Written by Matthew Bond

Position Opening

Dear SEB Student Members,

Hello, my name is Alexander O’Neill and I am the current President of the SEB Student Committee. I wanted to draw your attention to a new position available at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (IB-UNAM). Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions, or ideas as we begin our academic year.


The Institute of Biology, Universidad Nacional Aut√≥noma de M√©xico (IB-UNAM), whose main mission is the study of Mexican biodiversity and houses the national biological collections, invites applicants for a tenure track, full-time position as Associate Researcher, level “C”, in the field of Integrative Ethnobotany at the Botanic Garden situated in the main campus at Ciudad Universitaria, Mexico City, Mexico.¬†See attached PDFs for further information.

Convotacoria EtnobotaŐĀnico – Instituto de Biologia UNAM – Mexico

Ethonobotanist position – Instituto de Biologia UNAM – Mexico

Best wishes,


Alexander R. O’Neill

Master of Environmental Management & Forestry Candidate

Nicholas School of the Environment | Duke University