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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 stewardship, domestication, agrobiodiversity


Cropping systems, crop wild relatives, wild edible plants, Brassica, population genomics, community ecology

Research locations

U.S., Mexico, Canada, Ethiopia


Many of our most pressing challenges like sustainable resource management, climate-change-induced biodiversity loss, invasive species, and food security are at the intersection of human culture, ecology, and evolution. My research is focused on understanding the relationships between humans and their environments, the evolutionary and ecological impacts of humans on plants, and the traditional stewardship of plants by different cultures. His work ranges from genomic research to understand how humans have shaped plants through domestication to ethnobotanical projects to support the continuity and revitalization of cultural traditions related to plants.

Domestication of Brassica crops

Just as human selection has transformed wolves into a wide array of dog breeds, humans have shaped wild Brassica plants into diverse crops like kale, cauliflower, and kohlrabi from Brassica oleracea and bok choy, turnips, and napa cabbage from Brassica rapa. Despite their worldwide economic importance and potential as a model for understanding the domestication process, insights their evolutionary history have been limited due to a lack of clarity about their wild relatives. We are working to clarify the domestication history and nature of wild crop genetic resources for B. rapa and other Brassica crops in order to better understand the process of domestication and escape from domestication (feralization) as well as novel sources of diversity to protect our crops from climate change.

Shinnecock Ethnobotany and Climate Change

The Shinnecock People of Long Island, New York have maintained a connection to the plants and plant knowledge in their homelands. In collaboration with Josephine Smith, Sunshine Gumbs, and others from the Shinnecock Nation, this project seeks to document the flora of Shinnecock territory, document knowledge about use and management of local plants, fungi, and seaweeds, and conduct ecological restoration and educational activities to ensure that these plants and this knowledge are passed down to the next generation. The Shinnecock Nation also faces a number of climate change related threats including sea level rise, severe hurricanes, and expanding ranges of invasive species. Additionally, we are teaming up with Dr. Kelsey Leonard from Waterloo University to carrying out interviews to better understand local perceptions of and adaptations to climate change impacts in the community.

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.

The language of land and life: connecting language and ecology in Wixárika

Due to emigration, changing lifestyles, and other factors, words for plants, ecosystems, and other elements of nature are among the most rapidly disappearing in endangered languages. This project will document the Wixárika language, also known as Huichol, an endangered Uto-Aztecan language from West-Central Mexico with a focus on ecological terms and ethnobotanical knowledge. The project is a collaboration with native-speaker language activists Gabriel Pacheco and Tutupika Carillo, postdoctoral linguist Stefanie Ramos Bierge, Mexican universities, and non-profit community centers. This interdisciplinary effort will provide the key tools to fill knowledge gaps in Wixárika linguistics and ethnobiology as well as a basis for Wixárika language preservation and revitalization efforts.

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

Selected publications

McAlvay, A.C.; A.P. Ragsdale; X. Qi; K. Bird; P. Velasco; A. Hong; M. Mabry; J.C. Pires; E. Emshwiller. 2021. Brassica rapa domestication: untangling wild and feral forms and multiple origins of crop morphotypes. Molecular Biology and Evolution. msab108

Armstrong, C.G.; J. Miller; A.C. McAlvay; M. Richie; D. Lepofsky. 2021. Functional traits and biodiversity reflect Indigenous Peoples’ Land-Use Legacies in Pacific Northwest Archaeological sites. Ecology and Society. 26(2), Art. 6

McAlvay, A.C.; C.G. Armstrong; J. Baker.; L. Black Elk; S. Bosco; N. Hanazaki; L. Joseph; T. Martínez; M. Nesbitt; M. Palmer; W.C. Priprá de Almeida; J. Anderson; Z. Asfaw; I. Borokini; E.J. Cano-Contreras; S. Hoyte; M. Hudson; A. Ladio; G. Odonne; S. Peter; J. Wall; S. Wolverton; I. Vandebroek. Decolonizing institutions, projects, and scholarship in ethnobiology. 2021. Journal of Ethnobiology. 41(2), pp. 170-191

Mabry, M.E.; S.D. Turner-Hissong, E.Y Gallagher, A.C. McAlvay, H. An, P.P. Edger, J.D. Moore, D.A.C. Pink, G.R. Teakle, C.J. Stevens, G. Barker, J. Labate, D.Q. Fuller, R.G. Allaby, T. Beissinger, J.E. Decker, M.A. Gore, J.C. Pires. 2021. The Evolutionary History of Wild, Domesticated, and Feral Brassica oleracea (Brassicaceae). Molecular Biology and Evolution. msab183

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 and 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, pp.1-8.

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.

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. 2017. Barriers and prospects for crop wild relative conservation in Brassica rapa. Acta Horticulturae. 1202 pp. 165-177.

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.

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