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Week 12 - Stories told by plants: some examples from SW Australia

Dr Alison Lullfitz – Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management, UWA Albany

Dr Alison Lullfitz – Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management, UWA Albany

About this Event

The distribution and genetics of plants that share a history with First Nations people can tell us stories of old people long past. Evidence of longheld people-plant relationships in contemporary plant populations has been found across the globe but has been largely unexplored scientifically in south-western Australia. Recent botanical, ethnographic and archaeological investigations carried out by myself and colleagues have found that a long shared history between Noongar people and three staple Noongar food plants is reflected in the plants’ contemporary distributions and genetics. We found that contemporary distribution patterns of Nyerring/Djeeljeri (Macrozamia dyeri, Zamia palm) populations correspond with pre-colonial Nyungar occupation patterns across Esperance Nyungar country. We suggest that contemporary Nyerring/Djeeljeri distribution reflects past Nyungar practice, and is therefore useful to help interpret past location-specific Nyungar land management practices and to inform contemporary conservation management. In another plant genus, Platysace, we found high gene flow and population structure that corresponds to human rather than geographical drivers in two staple food species of the genus but not in a third species with no known Noongar significance. This indicates that human dispersal has influenced the phylogeography of the Noongar-utilised taxa. In both of these studies, cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary collaboration was key to understanding nuanced and sophisticated relationships between people, plants and landscapes. Both findings indicate how contemporary plant distribution and genetics analysis when combined with Indigenous knowledge and other disciplines are useful tools to shed new light on the very long human history of a global biodiversity hotspot.

Alison Lullfitz grew up on the south coast of WA, and after fifteen years of living and working in conservation management elsewhere, her deep affinity with south coast landscapes and biodiversity called her home to Boxwood Hill and Albany where she has lived with her family since 2009. After working in several biodiversity conservation roles with South Coast NRM, she collaborated closely with Nyungar/Noongar Elders to complete a PhD in 2019 exploring how longheld cultural activities have influenced floristic diversity and patterns in south-western Australia. She undertook her PhD research at UWA Albany, where she now teaches and continues cross-cultural research in conservation biology and ethnobiology. She is currently working as a Research Associate on the collaborative Walking Together project, aimed at returning Noongar people and knowledge to the centre of land management work in biologically and culturally rich Noongar Boodja. The project involves Elders and younger members of the Noongar community working alongside western scientists to record, pass on and apply Noongar traditional ecological knowledge to improved biodiversity outcomes in south-western Australia.

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