Mapping the distribution of the people’s plants to better predict and adapt to climate change

Dr Samuel Pironon1, Mr. Ian Ondo1, Ms. Eleanor Hammond-Hunt1, Dr. Tiziana Ulian1, Professor Kathy Willis2

1Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom, 2University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom

Climate change impacts biodiversity and the associated goods and services humans rely on. Thus, it also has profound effects on human societies across the world. Understanding and predicting how the fraction of plant diversity used by people is geographically distributed, how it might respond to climate change in the future, and how biodiversity could help provide adaptive solutions is therefore of major global importance. However, surprisingly, the large-scale distribution of plants having documented uses by humans (so-called “useful” plants) remains poorly known, which ultimately affects assessments of climate change effects and adaptive strategies.

First, using ethnobotanical, geographical and environmental information and advanced species distribution models, we produced the first global map of the people’s plants (>25,000 species). Further, we assessed the threat to future climate change of ~30 major food crops across Sub-Saharan Africa, a region considered highly vulnerable due to its socio-economic, political and farming characteristics. Our results indicate that a few crops (i.e. yam, coffee) may experience larger shifts in climatic conditions in the future than others. In turn, this could have a high impact on the economic activity and food security across the continent. Finally, using geographic and process-based information (e.g. functional traits, genome size), we identified and characterized crop wild relatives that may represent good targets for breeding programs in order to improve crop resilience to future climate change.

These results highlight the importance of accurate geographic data to predict and adapt to climate change, and preserve and promote the tremendous global diversity of “useful” plants.


Samuel Pironon holds a BSc in Biology from the University of Nancy, France, and two MSc’s in Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity from the Universities of Toulouse and Metz, France. He further worked for a year in the W. Thuiller lab at the University of Grenoble, France as a research assistant on species distribution modelling, conservation biology, and global change. In 2017, he obtained his PhD degree at the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology of Zaragoza, Spain studying the distribution of population demographic performance and genetic variation at the M.B. Garcia lab. Sam is now a research fellow at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, UK working on the global distribution of plants having documented uses by humans, and especially edible plants. His research aims at understanding the interactions between humans, plants and the environment, and the potential consequences and solutions to the effects of global change.

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