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Friday, August 27, 2010

Mt Kinabalu – a biogeographical gem

A REAL GEM: Mount Kinabalu is a melting pot of northern and southern hemisphere plant life.

By Alan Rogers
MT KINABALU, rising to 4,101 metres, is indeed thegem of the Orient. As I write from Somerset, UK with my pitcher plant (Nepenthes), my orchidsand my flowering peach coloured hibiscus around me, I think back to the many times, as an educationalist, I have visited Mt Kinabalu National Park. I hasten to add that the tropical plants in my garden here have been purchased from reputable garden centres in the UK. Mt Kinabalu is a melting pot of plant life for northern and southern hemisphere species, which occur at all heights on the mountain, with Malaysian species dominating the scene. EJH Corner, an eminent botanist, leading two Royal 
Society Expeditions to the mountain in the early 1960s remarked that, “Mt Kinabalu is a scenic wonder... botanically a paradise!” Surely the Mt Kinabalu National Park is 
truly a beacon of diversity hanging above Borneo in an area just less than that of Singapore.

In two previous articles in thesundaypost (March 14 and 21, 2010), I wrote on the geology and effect of the Ice Ages on this mountain. Today as a biogeographer, I attempt to summarise the vegetation that may be observed in a climb upwards from the National Park Headquarters to the summit at Low’s Peak.
This summary is written as a pocket guide for those Sabahans and Sarawakians 
who I hope will trundle their children to the summit of this unique mountain this 
year or in years to come. Dr LK Wade, a distinguished American Botanist, in his report on the flora there in 1979 humbly stated, “Perhaps nowhere else on earth does such a mixture of plant genera occur as on the high mountain of this botanical province, making this mountain an object of unequalled biogeographical interest.”

I last climbed Mt Kinabalu in April 2000 with my UK senior students. Whilst my knees shuddered on the descent, the enjoyment those students expressed in observing the ecotones of vegetation I had taught them in the classroom from the Equator to Alpine areas were all brought to life, in reality, in the ascent to Laban Rata — all within a three-and-a-half-hour climb cultivation of lower slopes.
Plagiclimax refers to a combination of factors that are mostly human induced. Humans have changed the local environment and thus affected natural forces in the way that they can now adapt. Beyond the National Park Headquarters, the vegetation must be classified as Polyclimax with communities of plants in equilibrium with all their environmental conditions.
This is a climax community that is under the controlling influence of many environmental factors,including soils, topography, fire, and animal interactions. Actually there are no sharp ecotones on the mountain for all plants there do not occur in sharply defined zones but merge with each other through zones of competition.
Species of one plant may be found alongside another but as you ascend the mountain, there is a broad transition and a gradient along which plant communities and their environments change according to local environmental factors. Look especially for the plants growing in ultramaphic soils (rich in iron, magnesium, nickel and chromium) supporting the Red Seraya (Oak Forest) and enjoy the fresh mountain air as you climb upwards.There are yet more plants to record on this magic mountain. Perhaps you may observe a newly discovered plant that could hold your name for posterity.Before you take the summit trail from the National Park Headquarters to the summit of Mt Kinabalu, please take aboard the references below to enlighten you further than I may manage in this short article. It truly is an amazing experience.

For more information read ‘Kinabalu Summit of Borneo Part 2’ published in 1978 by The Sabah Society; ‘A Botanist’s View Kinabalu Montane Alpine Meadow’ by Dr LK Wade Journal ofthe American Rhododendron Society Vol. 35, No. 2, Spring 1981; ‘The Vegetation Zones of Mt Kinabalu’ Ruhaizad David; or go to www.phylodiversity.net or www.mount-kinabaluborneo.com.

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