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Evidence of the shifting baseline syndrome in ethnobotanical research

Natalia Hanazaki1*, Dannieli Firme Herbst12, Mel Simionato Marques13 and Ina Vandebroek4

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Human Ecology and Ethnobotany, Ecology and Zoology Department, Federal University of Santa Catarina, ECZ-CCB-UFSC, Florianópolis, SC 88010-970, Brazil

2 Post Graduation Program in Ecology, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Brazil

3 Post Graduation Program in Plant Biology, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Brazil

4 Institute of Economic Botany, The New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, NY 10458, USA

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Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2013, 9:75  doi:10.1186/1746-4269-9-75

Published: 14 November 2013



The shifting baseline syndrome is a concept from ecology that can be analyzed in the context of ethnobotanical research. Evidence of shifting baseline syndrome can be found in studies dealing with intracultural variation of knowledge, when knowledge from different generations is compared and combined with information about changes in the environment and/or natural resources.


We reviewed 84 studies published between 1993 and 2012 that made comparisons of ethnobotanical knowledge according to different age classes. After analyzing these studies for evidence of the shifting baseline syndrome (lower knowledge levels in younger generations and mention of declining abundance of local natural resources), we searched within these studies for the use of the expressions “cultural erosion”, “loss of knowledge”, or “acculturation”.


The studies focused on different groups of plants (e.g. medicinal plants, foods, plants used for general purposes, or the uses of specific important species). More than half of all 84 studies (57%) mentioned a concern towards cultural erosion or knowledge loss; 54% of the studies showed evidence of the shifting baseline syndrome; and 37% of the studies did not provide any evidence of shifting baselines (intergenerational knowledge differences but no information available about the abundance of natural resources).

Discussion and conclusions

The general perception of knowledge loss among young people when comparing ethnobotanical repertoires among different age groups should be analyzed with caution. Changes in the landscape or in the abundance of plant resources may be associated with changes in ethnobotanical repertoires held by people of different age groups. Also, the relationship between the availability of resources and current plant use practices rely on a complexity of factors. Fluctuations in these variables can cause changes in the reference (baseline) of different generations and consequently be responsible for differences in intergenerational knowledge. Unraveling the complexity of changes in local knowledge systems in relation to environmental changes will allow the identification of more meaningful information for resource conservation.

Traditional ecological knowledge; Ethnoecology; Intra-cultural variation; Environmental perception