The first trees to colonize these abandoned hawker stalls at Tg Aru beach, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah are three species of figs. Ficus benjamina, Ficus drupacea and Ficus microcarpa. All photos by Anthea Phillipps.
A number of botanists have commented on the fact that strangling figs are often common in areas inhabited by humans and on old buildings but relatively rare in virgin forest. The explanation is that the leaves of fig stranglers are eaten by many animals and in forested areas deer and elephants rapidly eat young fig saplings. In forest areas where deer are present, stranglers can only establish above 2 m whilst in areas where elephants are present the lower limit is above 3 m. This limits fig establishment sites to elevated tree holes and epiphyte gardens which are very prone to drying out in dry weather leading to high mortality of fig seedlings.
Ants are known to be both predators and dispersers of tiny fig seeds and it is highly likely that at least some of the figs shown in the photos below were the result of ants transporting the seeds into cracks in concrete for storage in a food larder.
See also the article below by Kaufman et al (1991) concerning the secondary dispersal of Ficus microcarpa in Florida where it is considered an invasive species.
Adaptions for a two phase seed dispersal system involving vertebrates and ants in a hemiepiphytic fig (Ficus microcarpa) Kaufman et al (1991), Abstract
Figs are considered a classic example of plants with fleshy fruits adapted for seed dispersal by vertebrates, usually mammals or birds. Partially covering the endocarp of each individual drupelet of F. microcarpa is a fleshy, discrete lipid-containing exocarp that suggests adaptation for seed dispersal by ants. This structure is highly attractive to ants. F. microcarpa drupelets from which the fleshy exocarp was experimentally removed were much less likely to be transported by ants than those with this structure intact. The exocarps retained their attractiveness to ants and were not visibly altered following passage of the entire fruit through the gut of a frugivorous bird, the Indian Hill Mynah (Gracula religiosa). Germination percentage was not significantly affected by gut passage or exocarp removal. These results suggest that F. microcarpa has a two-stage seed dispersal system, in which primary dispersal by vertebrates is followed by secondary dispersal by ants. Dispersal aided by ants may be of significance in the biology of this exotic hemi-epiphyte in southern Florida, where it is naturalized and appears to be spreading.
There are 3 Ficus drupacea and one Ficus benjamina saplings in this photo along with a Casuarina equisetifolia seedling which is unlikely to survive.