Contributions of Indigenous Knowledge to ecological and evolutionary understanding

New research synthesizes the many contributions of Indigenous knowledge and its importance as a distinct but complementary way of knowing to Western science.

In the field of ecology, researchers are interested in understanding the complexities and interactions of the many organisms that make up our environments. Over the past two decades, the knowledges of Indigenous peoples has been increasingly represented within scientific literature and with this comes great responsibility. 

Indigenous knowledge (IK) has made extensive contributions to research. Examples abound from the scientific literature where IK has informed applied research, owing in large part to the place-based ecological, cultural, and spiritual knowledges and values that underpin IK. With transmission of information and observations occurring over multiple generations, IK holders draw on broad knowledge and deep ecological baselines unknown in Western science.

IK is a suite of place-based knowledges that are increasingly being represented in the Western science context. When applied together, IK and Western science can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. Although combining multiple ways of knowing in research is increasing in popularity, scientists must consider past and present injustices toward Indigenous people as well as their ethical duty to IK holders during the research process. 

In the paper Contributions of Indigenous Knowledge to ecological and evolutionary understanding, led by PhD candidate Tyler Jessen, and co-authored by Natalie Ban, Nicholas XEMŦOLTW Claxton, and Chris Darimont, authors synthesize the many contributions of IK and its importance as a distinct but complementary way of knowing to Western science. This review was published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The paper explains that work in ecology and evolutionary biology will increasingly be the result of Indigenous-led conservation and management programs. Research in the Western science context should transition from seeing IK holders as participants in research to leaders in applied work. In fact, the tools of science are regularly used by Indigenous scientists themselves.

The authors highlight the differences and commonalities in Western science and IK in an effort to aid collaborative research with IK holders. Despite differences in motivation and methodology, the complementary nature of IK and Western science can be the source of novel hypotheses and research questions.

With an increase in collaborative research, those seeking partnerships must have awareness of the historical and present-day tensions between Indigenous peoples and Western science. The authors caution against extractive and inappropriate uses of IK, and advocate for collaborative approaches that are grounded in respect, reciprocity, and confidentiality.


Jessen, T. D., Ban, N. C., Claxton, N. X., and Darimont, C. T. 2021. Contributions of Indigenous Knowledge to ecological and evolutionary understanding. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 10.1002/fee.2435


Indigenous Knowledge (IK) is the collective term to represent the many place-based knowledges accumulated across generations within myriad specific cultural contexts. Despite its millennia-long and continued application by Indigenous peoples to environmental management, non-Indigenous “Western” scientific research and management have only recently considered IK. We use detailed and diverse examples to highlight how IK is increasingly incorporated in research programs, enhancing understanding of – and contributing novel insight into – ecology and evolution, as well as physiology and applied ecology (that is, management). The varied contributions of IK stem from long periods of observation, interaction, and experimentation with species, ecosystems, and ecosystem processes. Despite commonalities between IK and science, we outline the ethical duty required by scientists when working with IK holders. Given past and present injustice, respecting self-determination of Indigenous peoples is a necessary condition to support mutually beneficial research processes and outcomes.

Select figures

Figure 2

Indigenous knowledge figure showing how Indigenous Knowledge contributes to understanding.
Contributions of IK to the fields of ecology, evolution, physiology, and applied ecology in peer-reviewed publications. IK facilitates the understanding of population trends (Lee et al. 2018), ecosystem function (Savo et al. 2016), habitat use (Polfus et al. 2014), community interactions (Donovan and Puri 2004), biogeographic patterns (Service et al. 2014), behavior (Bonta et al. 2017), wildlife conservation (Hill et al. 2019), wildlife management (Housty et al. 2014), morphology (Eckert et al. 2018), wildlife health (Parlee et al. 2014), taxonomy (dos Santos and Antonini 2008), life history (Idrobo and Berkes 2012), and population structure (Polfus et al. 2016). Citations link to details about research summarized by each image. Image by J Burgess, Isoline Studios, and Martin Campbell.

Figure 3

Venn diagrams of commonalities between Indigenous Knowledge emphasis and Western Science emphasis.
Conceptual foundations and approaches of IK and Western science in the fields of (a) ecology and (b) evolution. IK and Western science share similar and complementary conceptual themes (text within the Venn diagram), yet generate knowledge via different approaches (text outside of the Venn diagram) in these fields. Examples listed here are representative and not exhaustive. Crossover in themes and approaches can also be notable; for example, IK holders now commonly employ Western scientific approaches.

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