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Propagating fig fruits for orangutans, birds
Published on: Friday, April 12, 2019
By: David Thien

KOTA KINABALU: Figs are known to be keystone species in many tropical forest ecosystems whereby the fruits are wildlife’s main food resources.

Fig trees grow lots of fruit and are often found in the rainforests where orangutans live. However, they will also eat other items including insects, shoots, leaves, seeds, and tree bark.

Now figs are propagated by the Sabah Forestry Department in Sepilok Forest Reserve to help feed orangutans and other wildlife.

As fruit-eating animals, orangutans are important propagators of tropical plants. Many fruit seedlings sprout only after having passed through an animal’s digestive system.

Therefore, orangutans and some birds have a vital ecological role as seed dispersers in their rainforest environment and affect forest regeneration and plant-species diversity.

The fact is that with the rainforest being depleted and with the effects of global warming there isn’t nearly as much food for the orangutans and birds as there once was.

The adult apes have huge appetites and they are able to mentally remember what types of fruits are available during particular times of the year.

They will return to certain feeding spots annually for this purpose. Yet on many occasions they try to return and that area has been wiped out.

This is stressful for them to deal with as they try to find new places to get that food they need for survival.

Pg Mohd Sahlan Salam (pic) of the Sabah Forestry Department presented a paper entitled: ‘Fruiting pattern of 18 common Ficus species in Sepilok Forest Reserve of Sabah’ at the recent 2019 Heart of Borneo Conference.

“All 18 Ficus species in Sepilok vary in fruiting intensity, fruiting cycles, and appearance.

“Figs display staggered fruiting, thus ensuring the continuous availability of fruits throughout the year.

“Vegetative propagation of the selected species through several methods need to be studied to ensure the sustainable enrichment planting on poor and degraded forest areas and plantation forestry,” he said.

“Plant fig for the restoration of forest to create a better habitat for wildlife,” Pg Mohd Sahlan recommended.

He said by introducing figs in forest restoration projects, such fruiting trees “help serve in enhancing healthy wildlife habitat.”

However, basic information on the fruiting pattern of Ficus species has not been well documented in the past.

“The fruiting pattern and fruit intensity of 18 common Ficus species in Sepilok Forest Reserve were observed and recorded twice weekly for a year.”  

“The results showed that all species varied in fruiting intensity, fruiting cycles and appearance.

“Figs display staggered fruiting thus ensuring a continuous availability of fruits throughout the year.

“In addition, various vegetative propagation methods had been experimented including ways to establish figs in the field,” he explained.

Orangutans are capable of memorising the locations of temporary food sources, tracking seasonal changes in fruiting peaks and identifying behavioural signs from other animals to find fruiting trees.

Nearly 90 per cent of orangutans’ diet is composed of fruit. They eat more than 400 different plant varieties.  

Although fruit comprises most of the orangutan’s diet, they still require other nutrients as part of their daily intake. They receive a mixture of sugars and fats from fruit, carbohydrates from leaves, and protein from nuts.

Orangutans spend up to six hours a day eating or foraging for food. They strip leaves from branches by dragging them through their mouths.

To help absorb and neutralise secondary plant metabolites (plant compounds that are not directly involved in growth, development or reproduction) orangutans also consume soil.

Orangutans get most of their water from the fruits they eat, but will also drink from rivers and streams.  

Orangutans are capable of opening hard-shelled and/or thorny fruits like durian by gripping it firmly between their teeth and using one hand to manipulate it until a weak point is found, thereby breaking open the hard exterior.

This feeding method enables orangutans to feed on certain vegetation before its ripe enough for other species such as elephants and various insects to eat.

“Ficus is one of the most species rich genera with 150 species on Borneo. Figs are an extremely important source of food for wildlife in most of the world’s tropical forests.

“In Borneo figs provide a staple diet for birds, and figs are an essential fallback food for most primates including orangutans and many birds,” Pg Mohd Sahlan said.



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