Reporter 449, 20 March 2000

Where figs figure in the future of the rainforest

The relationship between figs and the animals which feed on them has been the focus of pioneering research based in Leeds.

Spectacular: a waterfall in the Lambir Hills National Park

Fig plants are playing a crucial role in regenerating depleted rainforests and protecting biodiversity in many parts of the world, says biology PhD student Mike Shanahan.

Currently writing up the thesis for his third Leeds degree, Mike has spent a year and a half in a remote corner of the Borneo rainforest studying how different animals contribute to the propagation of some 80 of the world’s 900 known fig species.

Getting to grips: the strangler fig

Figs belong to a versatile genus, present on every continent except Antarctica and in a multiplicity of shapes and sizes, from dwarf shrubs to creepers and giant trees.

In his fieldwork setting, the Lambir Hills National Park, any given hectare is likely to support around 800 tree species. Compared to the paltry 30-odd species native to Britain, this makes it one of the world's richest sites in terms of biodiversity.

Morning glory: mist rises over the forest canopy

"What makes the fig genus such an important object of study is that it bears fruit all year round. It can support animal life when other food sources are unavailable," said Mike Shanahan.

The reproductive cycle of the fig is also an excellent illustration of the interdependency of species. Each species of fig relies for its pollination on its own dedicated species of fig wasp - a tiny, short-lived insect which lays its eggs inside the seed pod. Once hatched, the female wasps fly off to pollinate a nearby fig of the same species.

Pioneer: Mike Shanahan

If a particular type of fig-wasp dies out in a given area, its corresponding species of fig plant cannot be pollinated and may follow suit - and vice-versa. As a model of the importance of biodiversity, this has long fascinated entomologist Steve Compton, Mike's doctoral supervisor, who now has a number of students working on it at Leeds and in Java.

Originally from St Helier on Jersey, Mike came to Leeds for his first degree in biology. When a taught MSc in biodiversity and conservation was set up, he was one of the first to enrol, and his project work for that degree led directly to his PhD theme.

"Life in Borneo was fascinating. The people - Iban, Malay and Chinese - were so friendly and it is enlightening to live by someone else's rules. We lived beside an Iban community and were often invited to their longhouses for some rice wine," he recalled.

Research work - sometimes in daylight, sometimes by night - involved observing the feeding habits of rainforest dwellers: birds, squirrels, bats, deer, porcupines and primates among them. Different types of fig attract different groups of fig-eaters, and consequently their seeds are spread in different patterns.

Gathering data meant trekking through the sweltering forest in 100 percent humidity, clambering along walkways rigged up in the forest canopy at dawn and using night-vision equipment to observe fruit bats and flying squirrels.

One chapter in Mike's thesis will report on fieldwork on a volcanic island in Papua New Guinea, where the emergence of a brand-new island in the middle of a crater lake afforded scientists an opportunity to study its colonisation by new plants, including figs, and the animals they attracted.

This extraordinary living laboratory could have important lessons for the regeneration of ruined rainforests.

Mike already has two journal papers in press, and his work has been featured in a national broadsheet as well as in the Jersey press. He was appointed to a visiting fellowship in Unimas, the Sarawak university.

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