An early morning view of Mount Kinabalu from the city of Kota Kinabalu on the west coast of Sabah. Kota Kinabalu means Fort of Kinabalu in Malay.
Mount Kinabalu (4,095 m) is the highest mountain in SE Asia between Myanmar and New Guinea. Scientists believe that the tropical forests of northern Borneo have had the world’s most stable climate over the last 40 million years with the least seasonal variation in rainfall.
During the occasional droughts, the many mountainous areas of northern Borneo close to the coast have acted as (very wet) rain traps and plant refuges. The result has been that the evolution of new plant species on Kinabalu has exceeded the extinction rate over many millions of years.
According to botanist Anthony Van Der Ent, the forest in the Kinabalu Park has the highest plant diversity per unit area of any similar sized site in the world.
Kinabalu Park includes virgin forest from the lowlands up to the bare rocks above the treeline at around 3,300 m. Above the treeline you can continue to find stunted shrubs including a fig Ficus oleifolia growing in clefts in the bare rock. The highest recorded fruiting fig was a Ficus oleifolia found by Corner at 3,230 m below the “rhino horn” on the east ridge.
The numerous different micro-habitats within a relatively small area is an additional explanation for the incredibly high diversity of plants and animals on Kinabalu. Differences in temperature, rainfall and soils all result in the eventual evolution of new plant species provided the climate remains stable for long enough.
Ficus oleifolia is a montane fig, here growing in a rock crevice above the tree line on Kinabalu. Ficus oleifolia is the most common fig recorded from Kinabalu above 1, 500 m and continues to thrive whilst growing at the highest altitude of any fig in the world. Photo Anthony Van der Ent.
Ficus oleifolia with ripe fig fruit fruiting just below the treeline on Kinabalu at c. 3,300 m . Photo Anthony Van der Ent.
Ficus oleifolia with ripe fig fruit growing in the forest understorey at Kinabalu Park HQ. F. oleifolia is extremely variable in shape of fruit and leaf depending on the habitat. Photo Quentin Phillipps.
Ficus inaequipetiolata is a Borneo endemic found particularly in areas of ultramafic soil on Kinabalu. Only a few species of figs are able to tolerate ultramafic soil with a high nickel content. Photo Anthony Van der Ent.
Ficus sinuata is another common Kinabalu fig. F. sinuata is also found on the hills and high mountains of Java, Sumatra and in the Malay Peninsula but not in the intervening lowlands, a relic of colder climates in the past when the mountains of Sundaland were all connected by montane forest. Photo Anthony Van der Ent.
As well as the niche specialist figs illustrated above Kinabalu also hosts most of Borneo’s common lowland figs such as Ficus septica. The figs of F. septica ripen green and are dispersed by bats. Photo Anthony Van der Ent.
According to Beaman and Anderson (2004) herbarium records list 83 Ficus species recorded for Kinabalu prior to 2004. If one deletes a few mistakes and adds some later records, the total is probably now over 90 species. For example the strangling fig ( Ficus kerkhovenii) above photographed by Tony Lamb at Poring is not recorded for Kinabalu by Beaman and Anderson.
Beaman & Anderson (2004) Ficus list for Kinabalu
Corner (1964) A Discussion of the results of the Royal Society Expedition to North Borneo (1964)
Corner (1996) Kinabalu Figs