Reporter 407, 6 October 1997

Biology student figs for victory

Figs can be a matter of life and death for a vast range of birds, fruit bats, monkeys and other animals. But it was by making figs sound fun that a biology research student at the University won a prize in a national competition.

Mike Shanahan, who has just embarked on a PhD having completed an MSc in biodiversity and conservation, was a runner-up in this year’s Daily Telegraph Young Science Writers competition.

His highly commended piece of writing, entitled ‘Figs: a job for conservation’s keystone cops’, examined the way in which some 750 different species of figs can help sustain a range of creatures during lean times.

“The weird and wonderful mix of fig-eaters include birds, fruit bats, monkeys, rodents, bearded pigs, spectacled bears and the oddly-named olingos, kinkajous and binturongs,” wrote Mike.

The reason that figs are so important to biodiversity is that they can fruit at any time of the year. Therefore, for many species, figs can sustain them through times of famine, and possibly make the difference “between survival and extinction”.

Mike, 23, told the Reporter that he first became interested in figs when he visited Borneo for his MSc course and realised their importance for fruit-eating animals.

“So when I heard about the Telegraph competition I thought I would write about figs, but my first efforts were a bit too academic in style,” he said. “I decided to make it a bit more fun and came up with the idea of figs being a keystone, hence the keystone cops in the title.”

Mike, who is hoping to visit Borneo again in the New Year, won £100 and subscriptions to New Scientist and Nature.

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Fruit bats in the Old World are unable to echolocate and so these figs – which are growing directly from the stem rather than among the foliage of the branches as most fruits do – are easier to find because they are smelly and dull green and thus more easily seen in moonlight. Flying at night through cluttered forest also poses problems for the bats (which may have poor manoeuvrability) and the positioning of figs is thought to make fruit removal easier. The bats remove the figs and eat them at a feeding roost some distance away. Some fig seeds are spat out and others can be carried greater distances before defecation. So, in return for the reward of the fruit, the bats provide an effective seed-dispersal service to the tree.

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