Mount Kinabalu’s unique natural history
For anybody who makes the attempt to climb Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, it will be obvious that scenery around the trail to the summit changes rapidly with elevation.
The attentive observer will notice that the occurrence of many plants and animals is restricted to a specific elevation range. Entire communities of species are replaced by communities of very different species. The slopes of Mount Kinabalu are thus divided into zones, ranging from the lush lower montane rainforest, through the upper montane forest and subalpine areas to the last few plants that manage to survive on an otherwise bare summit plateau.
For those with expertise in a certain group of closely related species, a second phenomenon will be perceived. Many of the organisms found on the slopes of the mountain cannot be found anywhere else in the world. They are unique, endemic species, of Mount Kinabalu. Mount Kinabalu is home to many of these endemic species. For some groups of species the proportion of endemics can even account for more than a quarter of the resident species.
One might start to wonder why these endemic species occur only on Mount Kinabalu - or in some cases on Mount Kinabalu and the adjoining Crocker Range. Apparently they are able to settle in an environment which none of the lowland species are able to deal with. Likewise, for some reason these endemic species are not able to survive in the lowlands. Perhaps they cannot compete for resources with lowland species, or they can simply not cope with the high temperatures in the lowlands.
Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea and therefore an isolated ‘island’ in the sky. So where did the endemic species come from? How and when did they arrive on the mountain?
To learn about the history of the mountain’s many endemic species, Sabah Parks and the Dutch Naturalis Biodiversity Center organised a scientific expedition. During the expdition, 47 biologists visited mount Kinabalu and the Crocker range, where they studied snails, leeches, insects, spiders, frogs, plants and fungi along the entire elevation gradient.