'Sense of place' and conservation: toponym diversity helps to maintain vegetation naturalness.

Published online
15 Sep 2023
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Valkó, O. & Bede, Á. & Rádai, Z. & Deák, B.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
Hungary & Europe & Asia


Place names are an important but vanishing part of cultural diversity, and their relevance for environmental sciences is increasingly acknowledged. Still little is known about whether the diversity of toponyms affects human-nature relationships and the decisions of humans on how to use certain parts of the landscape. To investigate this question, we combined approaches from social sciences and ecology in a comprehensive multidisciplinary survey of 1521 cultural landscape features in Hungary. The landscape features studied were ancient millennia-old burial earthen mounds built by nomadic steppic tribes, that often hold the last remnants of grassland vegetation and provide safe havens for grassland specialist plant and animal species in the intensively used agricultural landscapes of Eurasia. In our research, we (i) compiled a comprehensive database of the mounds in the 5150 km2-sized study region, (ii) collected all toponyms of the mounds recorded since the 18th century, (iii) derived the height and distance from settlements for each mound and (iv) visited all the mounds in a field survey, and evaluated their vegetation naturalness. We found that despite the intensive landscape transformation in the region, and independently of topographical factors, a higher number of toponyms was associated with a higher degree of naturalness of the vegetation on the landscape features. Independently of the protective effect of the height of the mound against ploughing, and the distance from settlements that reflects to decreasing land use intensity, we found that the vegetation on the mounds with more names had a higher degree of naturalness. Synthesis and applications. Cultural recognition of these places has eroded considerably in the past centuries, but its effect is still noticeable, suggesting an extinction delay of culture-driven biodiversity patterns. Our results suggest that reestablishment of the lost cultural connections between people and nature can contribute to reversing the deterioration. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.

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