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Alex C. McAlvay

Kate E. Tode Assistant Curator, Institute of Economic Botany

Ph.D., University of Wisconsin–Madison
Madison, WI, 2018


Ethnobotany, traditional plant management, domestication, agrobiodiversity


Wild edible plants, Brassica, population genomics, cropping systems, crop wild relatives, ecology

Research locations

Mexico, Canada, Ethiopia


Several of our most pressing challenges like resource management, climate-change-induced biodiversity loss, invasive species, and food security are at the intersection of human culture, ecology, and evolution. My research investigates the reciprocal impacts of humans and their environments, with a focus on traditional plant management, agroecosystems, and crop wild relatives. My current interdisciplinary projects leverage ethnographic interviews, ecology, genomics, and GIS, to address these issues in Indigenous communities in North America (Mexico and Canada) and East Africa (Ethiopia).

Domestication, dedomestication, and redomestication of field mustard (Brassica rapa)

The wild relatives of crop plants represent a double-edged sword for management: they represent important reservoirs of diversity as crops face new biotic and abiotic threats from global change but also include some of the most widespread invasive weeds. My work integrates ethnographic
interviews in Mexico, evolutionary plant genomics, ecological niche-modeling, and greenhouse experiments, to investigate the origins, spread, use, and management of crop and weed forms of Brassica rapa (field mustard, turnip, bok choi, napa cabbage, oilseeds). So far I have modeled the distribution of crop wild relatives for conservation, reconstructed the domestication history of the crop forms, traced the origins and spread of feral populations, documented the importance of weedy field mustard for food security among Latin America small-holder farmers, and characterized a rare instance of ongoing redomestication by Indigenous Mexican farmers.

Cereal species mixtures used by Ethiopian farmers for climate-resilience

Farmers in Ethiopia are already experiencing the impacts of climate change through altered drought cycles and range expansion of pests. In the northern highlands, many small-holder farmers sow traditional mixtures of wheat and barley varieties to mitigate these and other climate-related stresses, but these practices are being quickly replaced despite a lack of research on their potential benefits. My work combines farmer interviews, agroecology, and GIS to characterize the ecological and social drivers of agrobiodiversity at a landscape scale and potential of traditional cropping systems to buffer against climate uncertainty.

Indigenous management of wild plant resources in the Canada and Mexico

In addition to management of agroecosystems, my work is also focused on traditional management of otherwise wild resources in forest and salt-marsh ecosystems. My research in western Canada seeks to characterize the impacts of traditional management practices like bark harvest, pruning, transplanting, and burning. This research includes assessing functional ecological landscape legacies of Indigenous management at archaeological village sites and work with Nuxalk and Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations collaborators on traditional salt marsh gardens. I am am currently working to document traditional management of wild plant resources by Wixárika farmers in the western Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit.

My research is funded by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the National Science Foundation.

Selected publications

Reyes-García, V., D. García-del-Amo, P. Benyei, Á Fernández-Llamazares, K. Gravani, A.B. Junqueira, V. Labeyrie, X. Li., D.M. Matias, A.C. McAlvay & P.G. Mortyn. 2019. A collaborative approach to bring insights from local observations of climate change impacts into global climate change research. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 39 1-8.

Armstrong, C.G. and A.C. McAlvay. 2019. Introduction to Special Section on Action Ethnobiology. Journal of Ethnobiology, 39(1), pp.3-13.

Golan, J. and A.C. McAlvay. 2019. Intellectual Property and Ethnobiology: An Update on Posey’s Call to Action. Journal of Ethnobiology, 39(1), pp.90-109.

McAlvay, A.C.; K. Bird, J.C. Pires, E. Emshwiller. 2019. Barriers and prospects for crop wild relative conservation in Brassica rapa. Acta Horticulturae.

Abera, B., M. Berhane, A. Nebiyu., M.L. Ruelle, A.C. McAlvay, Z. Asfaw, A. Tesfaye, Z. Woldu. 2019. Diversity, use and production of farmers’ varieties of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L., Fabaceae) in southwestern and northeastern Ethiopia. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 67:339-356.

An, H., X. Qi, M.L. Gaynor, Y. Hao, S.C. Gebken, M.E. Mabry, A.C. McAlvay, G.R. Teakle, G.C. Conant, M.S. Barker, and T. Fu. 2019. Transcriptome and organellar sequencing highlights the complex origin and diversification of allotetraploid Brassica napus. Nature communications, 10(1), p.2878. PDF(Open Access)

Armstrong, C.G., A.C. Shoemaker, I. McKechnie, A. Ekblom, P. Szabó, P.J. Lane, A.C. McAlvay, O.J. Boles, S. Walshaw, N. Petek, K.S. Gibbons, E.Q. Morales, E.N. Anderson, A. Ibragimow, G. Podruczny, J.C. Vamosi, T. Marks-Block, J.K. LeCompte, S. Awâsis, C. Nabess, P. Sinclair, C.L. Crumley. 2017. Anthropological contributions to historical ecology: 50 questions, infinite prospects. PLoS ONE 12:2. PDF(Open Access)

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