Chemical and social ecology of Australia Cycas. (APSF 20036)

APSF 20036 | Amount: $42,000 | Project Leader: R Gleadow | Project Period:

A project undertaken at Monash University, and supervised by Roslyn Gleadow.

Cycads, an ancient palm-like seed plant, are highly toxic, and can cause serious illness if consumed without sufficient processing. Despite their toxicity, cycad seeds have long been used as a source of high-quality starch by Indigenous people, who have developed processing methods to make the seeds safe to eat. In Indigenous communities where cycads are traditionally processed and consumed, cycads play an important social and cultural role, helping to construct notions of place and identity. This project focuses on the chemical ecology of cycad species from northern Australia, and forms part of a wider project on the place of cycads in Indigenous cultures. Very little is known about the chemical composition of Australian cycads and how this relates to their use by Indigenous groups. This project will address this gap by investigating the chemical make-up of Australian cycad species and the effectiveness of different Indigenous processing methods.

The wider project will combine perspectives and approaches of both western and Indigenous botanical knowledges to elicit deeper understandings about the toxicity of cycads and their role in Indigenous society and culture. This will be the first study to comprehensively assess the chemical composition of Australian cycads and the factors influencing their toxicity and these examinations will add valuable knowledge to our understandings of these ancient plants, providing insights into the function of cycad toxins, cycad biology and population dynamics. Given the important role that cycads play as a food product for Indigenous Australians, ascertaining their toxicity in relation to current processing regimes will ensure the continued safe consumption of cycad foods and guard against the emergence of cycad related illness in Indigenous communities. The project has the broader goal of improving current approaches for scientific research with Indigenous communities through two-way learning methods, so that Indigenous knowledges and viewpoints are better represented in botanical research.

Cycas angulata on Yanyuwa country, NT
Cycas plants growing in a nutrient trial in the greenhouse at Monash University
PhD student Georgia Lloyd (left) harvesting the growth experiment, assisted by Alicia Quin and Louis Booth, COVID-safe.
Cycas develop clusters of corraloid roots that house symbiotic nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria.