Evolution peaks on tropical mountain

August 12, 2015, Naturalis Biodiversity Center
Evolution of endemism peaks on the young tropical Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, researchers of Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Sabah Parks find in Nature. Credit: J. Kong, Sabah Parks

Tropical mountains have an exceptionally high biodiversity. This is also the case for Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. During an expedition, organized by Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Sabah Parks, experts investigated the local fauna, flora, and fungi. They discovered that most of the unique species that occur in the area had evolved later than the age of the mountain itself, and that some had evolved from immigrant ancestors, whereas others evolved from local ancestors. These findings are published in Nature.

On tropical mountains, exceptional numbers of occur. This is because temperature and environment change rapidly as elevation increases. Therefore the species living on the summit of a often only occur there. These are sometimes referred to as endemic species. Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo is an example of that. The 4,095 meter high mountain is on the world Heritage list of UNESCO and is home to hundreds of unique species.

Together with 45 other experts, Naturalis researchers Vincent Merckx and Menno Schilthuizen collected dozens of such endemic species in 2012 during a Dutch-Malaysian scientific expedition on Mount Kinabalu. They then used DNA to determine from which species these endemic species had evolved. The researchers showed that most of the species that occur on the mountain are younger than the mountain itself. They also demonstrated that the endemic biodiversity consists of two groups. Some of the unique species are immigrants from far away areas such as the Himalayas or China, which were already adapted to a cool environment. The other endemic species evolved from the local species that occurred at the foot of the mountain and which gradually adapted to the cooler conditions.

In a period of two weeks, the researchers collected tens of thousands of plants, animals and mushrooms at 37 locations on and around Kinabalu. These included ferns, mosses, orchids, snails, leeches, insects, spiders, and frogs. The results of this study revealed that the mountain is a hotbed for evolution. "It is sometimes thought that tropical mountains are also locations where very old species survive. However, our research reveals that most of the species are young", says Schilthuizen. New species evolve at the top the mountain, but these often evolve from species that already lived under such conditions. "This is important for the protection of the endemic species. Our research reveals the extent to which species are able to evolve to keep up with climate change and this allows us to make predictions for the future."

Explore further: Climate change just one of many risks to trees in the tropical Andes

More information: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature14949

Related Stories

The global impact of climate change on biodiversity

January 21, 2009

New research led by the University of York which retraced the steps of a 1965 survey on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo has discovered that, on average, species had moved uphill by about 67 m over the intervening years to cope with ...

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

Study suggests trees are crucial to the future of our cities

March 25, 2019

The shade of a single tree can provide welcome relief from the hot summer sun. But when that single tree is part of a small forest, it creates a profound cooling effect. According to a study published today in the Proceedings ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.